Bystander intervention and myth-making in “Anonymous vs. Steubenville”

This morning I learned that Brad Pitt’s film production company purchased the rights to “Anonymous vs. Steubenville”, a Rolling Stone article about online citizens’ investigation and exposure of a cabal of teenage rapists in middle America and their enablers, which included both teens and adults, institutions and individuals. An advocate for Jane Doe, the unidentified survivor of the Steubenville rape, claims she is seeking input on the film. This whole thing could go very well, or very poorly.

So far, discussion around the new film has centred on the story frame created by the Rolling Stone article, which largely erases Jane Doe, and entirely erases the female blogger, Alexandria Goddard, who exposed the story and shone a beacon on it for Anonymous to discover. Instead, the Rolling Stone story focuses on Deric Lostutter, the Anon who became known as KYAnonymous and famously faces more jail time than the Steubenville rapists for his role in bringing them to justice.

Some folks think this framing is a bad thing, because the last thing we need is another story about sexual assault that erases the survivor in favour of crowing about the heroic man who intervened. Others disagree, arguing that we need to be telling more stories about men challenging rape culture and sexual assault.

I’m inclined to agree with both viewpoints. The truth is, men have an important role to play in solving the problems of rape culture and sexual assault, and it couldn’t hurt to give them more role models for bystander intervention. I think, for me, the problem lies in making the men who do intervene into heroes, and their interventions into acts of heroism and bravery, rather than imperfect acts of support and respect. This mythologization can actually make the act seem more intimidating to perform, and gives people license to stand down if that’s easiest for them, because they’re not a HERO or anything.

I understand that it can be intimidating to stand up to your colleagues if they are making rape jokes, or to tell your friends how fucking predatory it is that they’re scanning the party like Terminators to find the drunkest girl to bring home. Toxic masculinity means that some will interpret these acts as betrayals of your bros. And because of the aggressive ways in which men are socialized to respond to challenge, I understand it also opens up the possibility of physical violence in some cases, and we all need to be careful about that.

So okay, I get it, it can take guts to intervene as a bystander. But make no mistake, these are not True American Hero guts – they are Regular Decent Person guts, and we can all find them in ourselves if we do a little digging. In the case of sexual violence and rape culture, indeed, we all must find these Regular Decent Person guts in ourselves, because it will take that many acts of intervention, that many confrontations, that many snubbings at the bar or in class or at work, that many destroyed “personal brands”, that many damaged or ended friendships (among many, many other things), to solve the problem.

When I was in university, I found myself in a very Jane Doe-like situation: I was black-out drunk and, when my friends turned away for a mere minute, a man I didn’t know (who was sober) whisked me into his car, drove me to my house and raped me. It took a few weeks to begin to understand what happened to me as rape, because of the many messages our culture sends to the contrary (through vessels ranging from the film The 40 Year Old Virgin to my own roommates). One reason I did come to understand it as rape was through the counsel and support of a few close friends, including a couple I knew named Chris and Candace.

A couple of months after my rape, Chris and Candace and I went out to the same bar where my rapist had found me. As the night wound down, we were smoking out front when a good friend of Chris’s approached us to say hello. The friend said, “I want to introduce you to a buddy of mine,” and who should that buddy be but my rapist. I flushed and turned away. After exchanging a few words with Candace (i.e. “That’s him.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” “Nope.”), Candace whispered the guy’s identity to Chris. My rapist held out his hand, to be shaken by Chris. Chris looked at my rapist’s hand like it was covered with snakes.

After what seemed like hours, Chris said slowly and clearly, “I can’t shake this fucking guy’s hand.” His friend looked confused. My rapist looked like he was trying to appear confused, which infuriated me so deeply that my anger exploded in a shove (sorry, I am not an advocate of physical violence, but please, this guy raped me), pitting him against a nearby garage door. In front of a crowd of people smoking nearby, I screamed that he might want to wipe that confused look off his face, since a couple of months prior he raped me without a condom while he was sober and gave me a curable STI. I wasn’t embarrassed, I just wanted everyone witnessing the confrontation to know exactly what he had done. Then I ran away crying, because yeah. When Candace caught up to me a few moments later, she told me that Chris had punched my rapist (again, sorry, see above) and was now having a conversation with their mutual friend about why he should not befriend my rapist.

Chris’s response in this situation was not perfect, and is not intended as a script for how one should always deal with these situations. But he intervened in a way that demonstrated clear support for me, first and foremost, as well as challenging rape culture. Chris wasn’t a hero, he was just my friend. He knew that, if he cared about me and my right to exist in safety without feeling like I can never again return to this bar or be in the presence of his friend again, it was incumbent upon him to act. So he found his Regular Decent Person guts, and he acted in the ways that made the most sense for him in that moment.

I almost wonder if understanding bystander intervention as a challenging act, rather than a supporting one, is part of why men’s intervention in cases of violence against women is so likely to be deemed heroism rather than care and responsibility. Perhaps it’d be helpful if we understood bystander intervention as support and care for the survivor first and foremost, which is in and of itself a challenge to rape culture and gender violence. Maybe then, stories about bystander intervention in cases of violence against women wouldn’t be reduced to, as my friend Heather Cromarty so succinctly put it, “Good Men vs. Bad Men, and damn the ladies in between.”

(Web)making it better for girls in tech at MozFest

Me standing in front of the MozFest "To Make/Making/Made" scrum board. Photo by Sammy James Dodds.
The MozFest “To Make/Making/Made” board. Photo by Sammy James Dodds

My passion runs high for getting more girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), so I was thrilled to be invited to Mozilla’s annual festival in London, UK this October to facilitate the development of a Girls in Tech teaching kit. MozFest is a sprawling, buzzing, beeping, humming multi-floor combination of science fair, conference and hackathon. I knew from previous experience with Mozilla that MozFest would be colour-saturated, high-energy and hospitable for a variety of learners. What I didn’t know is how hospitable the space would be for a critical feminist perspective on girls in tech.

I’ve worked and volunteered in a wide variety of “women in tech” spaces and, in my experience, most of them serve up gallons of delicious status quo Kool-Aid. Everyone laments the lack of women’s representation in the field, but the solutions usually espoused are typically of the “Lean In” variety: “If we all just work hard!…” We foist the solutions onto women’s shoulders and refuse to do anything about the commonly accepted beliefs and behaviours that perpetuate the problem. Beliefs and behaviours like rampant objectification of women (Titstare, anyone?), industry worship of a faulty concept of meritocracy, and those pesky, deeply-held sexist cultural beliefs about gender (and what different genders are capable of).

There is an intimate and nuanced connection between how women are treated and represented as technology makers, users, and in the products themselves (e.g. video game characters). This means that, in the long game, changing how women are treated in one sphere will probably impact their representation in other spheres. But it also means that we can’t just focus on creating spaces for girls to become technology makers, without making changes elsewhere in the industry culture. Otherwise we’re helping girls build the skills and confidence they need to kick ass in tech, then sending them into an occupational community ill-equipped to understand and welcome women kicking ass.

Much like how our culture treats the problem of sexual assault, we are more comfortable prescribing ways that women can think or behave to improve their lot in tech than we are prescribing changes for men and the industry’s gendered normative behaviour. Perhaps that’s because, as Clementine Ford suggests in the context of sexual violence, it is easier to understand the women in our lives as potential victims than the men in our lives as potential aggressors (or Part Of The Problem).

That’s why, when I had the opportunity to build a Girls in Tech teaching kit at MozFest, I wanted it to touch on gender stereotypes and sexism – despite the fact that, in other “women in tech” spaces, I have been explicitly discouraged from describing myself as a feminist or addressing the industry’s problems with sexism. When I worked with Mozilla before, they heartily encouraged my feminist muckraking with their Webmaker suite (they even shared some of it on the main stage at MozFest!), so I was hopeful. I felt I was in the right space to make a gender-critical Girls in Tech kit happen, but was still pretty sure I’d come up against pushback from a prospective scrum participant.

Imagine my surprise when every single conversation I had at MozFest about the kit (or women in tech more generally) delved comfortably into critical and political territory. Imagine my surprise when, even if a few of the people at the table had a less critical understanding of the problem, there was always someone to back me up. Imagine my surprise when every. educator. I worked with. understood my need to combine positivity and encouragement with critical analysis of industry and cultural norms and the false premises on which they rest. Imagine my surprise when I sheepishly proposed a less political angle for one activity, and the scrum group I was facilitating unanimously disagreed with me. There just aren’t enough <3’s in the world.

The first iteration of my Girls in Tech teaching kit is the product of 10 people, many of them educators, who were drawn to the project because they are passionate about making the STEM fields more hospitable places for women. MozFest was a gigantic event practically exploding with awesome things to see, do and make (highlights in the MozFest blog, Flickr and Tumblr), yet most of these people spent the better part of Saturday building a component of the Girls in Tech kit. Many others stopped by to ask questions or show their support of the project. Within nine hours we completed the kit’s first iteration, from learning objectives to activities to examples to discussion questions. And then I slept for, oh, five minutes, and hopped on a plane back to Toronto to do a(n also very awesome) workshop with Long & McQuade department managers on how to not be this guy.

The pace of work, the support and independence afforded to facilitators, the level of talent and commitment, and the tone of MozFest in general left me feeling exhilarated and inspired. I can’t wait to workshop the kit with a few more educators, refine its content and hopefully encourage a few organizations to adopt it as a free teaching tool. Feel free to use and remix the Girls in Tech teaching kit yourself, or share it with a parent or educator in your life.

Things women musicians say to me

A few weeks ago I asked women musicians on Twitter and Facebook for all the silly things folks have said to them, and/or any silly things they’ve observed folks saying to women musicians. It sparked a lot of maddening responses, which I rounded up in a blog post that got cross-posted at HuffPo entitled “Infuriating Things People Say to Women Musicians”.

Initially, they asked if I’d like to re-title my post “Infuriating Things Men Say to Women Musicians”, assuming most of the quotes came from men. But I know all too well (and too personally) how easy it is to internalize misogyny as a woman-identified person growing up in The Patriarchy. Well, now I know, but for a long time I didn’t. It was during that time that I would say things like “I don’t ‘get’ girls, I just get along better with guys”. Sometimes internalized misogyny works like that – turning you against other women. Other times, it turns you against yourself. So I knew it was highly likely that at least a handful of the silly things said to women musicians were uttered by other women.

Today, I met a warm and funny woman who had read the piece. She plays a few different instruments and writes about music, but hadn’t worked on a musical project in a long time. She partially blamed this on a self-defeating, all-or-nothing “if you can’t play like Zeppelin, what’s the fucking point” attitude. As you might imagine, this made jamming with others extremely intimidating for her, and discouraged her from improvising for fear of screwing up. Guys sometimes have these thoughts and insecurities too, for sure, but as you can see from my post, many women musicians face a kind of wall of dismissal and condescension from all corners of their industry.

When she read my piece and saw how many other women were being dismissed and condescended to, she realized that maybe this had something to do with the feelings that had prevented her from diving into a jam. At the same time, she remembered a story her female friend had shared awhile back about putting up posters seeking new bandmates, and getting a bunch of calls from clueless and/or intrusive dudes looking for dates. At the time, she had laughed off her friend’s frustration in a “what a problem: too many dates, not enough time” kind of way. Reading my laundry list of similar micro-aggressions shifted this old anecdote into a new light for her. Commiserating about it with her friend, the two of them felt emboldened and kindled a new musical project together. This story thrilled me to the core.

It was interesting that she used Zeppelin as her example of a sound to aspire to, because one of the comments on my HuffPo piece reads as follows:

This might've made me shed a tear or two.This guy’s remorse for dismissing Nancy and Ann’s own soul-shattering music in favour of covers (though Heart’s Zeppelin covers do rule), and his retrospective appreciation of their own unique sound, really touched me. I couldn’t resist recounting the comment to the awesome woman I met today. She, like me, was visibly moved by it. Before our goodbye high-five, I told her “Girl, you can play like Zeppelin, or you can play like you”.

Feminists + Drinking Games + Hollywood = Drunk Feminist Films

Image

Did you know I make a web series with some other women called Drunk Feminist Films? If you follow me on Twitter you probably know, because I tweet about it OFTEN and WITH GUSTO. But I haven’t really announced it in this corner of the internet, so boom: Drunk Feminist Films, it’s a thing.

It all started when Gillian G. was struck with a brilliant idea: have a few feminist pals over, watch Twilight and play a feminist-flavoured drinking game (you can find the rules here). I really couldn’t envision a non-amazing way of combining those ingredients, so over to her house I went, along with Amy Wood and Shaunna. After the game was well underway, we couldn’t help but notice a high concentration of zingers flying around the room. On a whim, we thought “maybe we should try this with cameras sometime”. And in that moment, #DFFilms was born.

If you watch mainstream movies, you’re probably aware that representation of women in Hollywood is kind of abysmal. Women characters who actually do things in the story are often non-existent – they’re more like props whose mere presence helps male characters self-actualize. When they do get to do stuff, their characters are often poorly fleshed out cardboard, which surprisingly isn’t that easy to relate to. Drunk Feminist Films is about throwing up your hands and laughing your way through that gauntlet, rather than crying. It’s not really necessary to drink – though we find it dulls our Feminist Sads and ramps up the Feminist Laffs a bit, that doesn’t work for everyone. The important thing is to sit around and crack snarky jokes, amirite?

We have a YouTube channel and a Tumblr that you should follow if you like the idea of four women playing feminist drinking games while watching movies and TV shows including (so far) Game of Thrones, Twilight, She’s All That and most recently A League of Their Own. Last week we hosted a live screening of 21st century classic, Mean Girls, at Academy of the Impossible, to some pretty grool results.

Have any suggestions for movies we should watch next? Let me know in the comments!

Things people say to women musicians

My band, Patti Cake, is making a zine for our show this Thursday at the Silver Dollar in Toronto. Since our lead singer Kritty Uranowski is a counsellor at Girls Rock Camp and I am mostly always thinking about feminism (ALL THE DAMNED TIME), I decided to submit a collection of crowdsourced “things people say to women musicians” for the zine. I tweeted this:

Here’s a sampling of the responses I got. Note the frequency with which the word “girls/girl” appears. Also, music store employees? DO BETTER.

“Girls can’t play bass because they’re not technical.”

“You girls must be singers.” – music store employee to women customers looking at mixers

“Do your parents know you’re out with old guys?”

“Let me explain to you how soundchecks work.” – sound tech, who went on to patronizingly explain Soundchecks 101 to a musician with years of experience

“WOW, a girl drummer!”

“So you’re a solo acoustic act, right?”

“Are you the singer?” “No.” “…Are you the keyboard player?” “No.”

“Girl bassists are hot.”

“……..” – the sound of a woman musician being ignored a million times by music store employees

“They make you carry that?!?!” – onlooker to woman musician lugging gear

“You know about amps?! Whoa, you just blew my mind. I love a chick that knows about gear.”

“Oh, you’re IN the band!”

“There’s a girl’s voice on this recording but no girl in the band.” – reviewer about a band in which there is, in fact, a “girl”

“I almost had a show for you with [female artist], but decided against a woman opening.” – booker

“I bet you’re buying the blue tambourine because blue is your favourite colour.” – music store employee

“This headshot won’t work for your poster… You need a body shot!” – agent

“It’s pretty hard to know what this stuff does unless you really study it.” – male music store employee to a trained audio engineer who is also a woman

“I didn’t know girls liked Iron Maiden.”

“Oh, so you’re in the jazz program. Singer, right?”

“You were actually good; I was surprised!”

“You play this?!” – male music repair shop employee re: a woman musician’s guitar

“You must’ve dated at least half your band.”

“We always thought you were waiting for your boyfriend.” – male music store employee when a woman musician asked why she never got any service from them

“Ha! Like YOU could ever sing Zeppelin.”

“Want a Betty Boop strap to go with that new guitar?”

“I didn’t know girls played saxophone.”

“There are no female music producers because women can’t understand the technicalities involved.” “[Names a female music producer]” “She must have had a guy helping her out.”

“I can no longer book you because you want to tour with your baby.”

“Girls don’t play jazz.” – man, to a woman who auditioned and beat a tonne of guys for a spot in the ensemble

“Just shut up, smile and sing, honey.”

“You should specialize. People don’t like girls who do too much.” – man, to a woman who sings and plays a variety of instruments

“I hope you girls know what you’re doing with those covers, the bass parts are hard! I know because I have the tabs book.”

“Are you shopping for your boyfriend?” – male music store employee

If you groaned at least once while reading these, please consider making a donation or spreading the word about Girls Rock Camp or the Resampled music production workshops for women and trans folks (there’s one at the Tranzac this Sunday).