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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

This week I was introduced (a little late) to Diesel’s “Be Stupid” ad campaign.  It’s really best seen, rather than described, so I would highly recommend watching this video and getting an idea of what the ads are all about.

Now, at first, the video seems to be encouraging people to follow their dreams, which is always nice, I suppose. But the video quickly devolves into a criticism of society’s “smart” people, who apparently don’t take risks, or have any good ideas (except, of course, for Diesel, the company that thought of the “Stupid” concept), and seem to just represent people interested in following a traditional career path rather than, you know, sticking their heads into mailboxes.

If you look at the actual ads in the campaign, you will soon discover that apparently “stupid” means, in fact, being oversexualized and usually naked. I’m not exactly sure where they got their definition of stupid from, but according to Merriam-Webster it means “given to unintelligent decisions or acts.” Now, while running around naked, or flashing a security camera certainly is an “unintelligent decision,” the ad campaign has taken stupid decisions and glorified them by making it appear that being stupid is equivalent to having friends who will be willing to have sex all the time and run around naked with you.

For this, two of the ads have been banned in Britain. One ad featured a woman flashing a security camera, while the other had a picture of a woman in a bikini taking a picture of her genitalia. The British Advertising Standards Authority said that the ads could encourage “anti-social or irresponsible” behavior and that the bikini one could cause “serious offense to many adults”, and banned the ads from public posters. Now, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that I believe the ads should be banned, but they certainly have caused quite the controversy.

One thing I find interesting is Diesel’s response to the complaints about the ads. According to the above article, the company responded to complaints about the bikini ad by saying that it “portrayed a very strong and unexpected image of femininity, aligning it with typically masculine themes.” Perhaps they’re referring to is the lion awkwardly lurking behind the girl taking a picture of herself as a “masculine theme,” but other than that, I can’t think of what is particularly masculine about the ad. The fact that she’s taking an inappropriate picture in the middle of daylight? That doesn’t seem masculine to me, just stupid–which, I guess, fits with the name. Just as Diesel has taken liberty with the meaning of “stupid” in an attempt to make it a symbol of counterculture and creativity, it also seems to have created its own gender paradigm in an attempt to prove that they are subverting it.

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This is cross-posted at Jewesses with Attitude.

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy lately. Maybe it’s because I’m working for a children’s book company this summer or maybe it’s because I am now open to seeing the holes in my own literacy. Of course, when I think of literacy, I tend to associate it with Judaism because that is where many of my holes originate. I was given opportunities for Jewish literacy through Hebrew School, synagogue, and family gatherings all throughout my elementary school years, but I was not ready to take it in, to absorb it, to fuse that into my New York City culture. So instead I decided to become feminist literate, reading The Feminine Mystique, bell hooks, and Gloria Steinem. I abandoned anything that showed a hint of sexism (with the exception of the guilty pleasure teen literature that shall not be named) because I immediately assumed there would be nothing I could learn from it.

I was wrong. It took a trip to Israel and interviewing my grandmother to learn that Jewish literacy in all forms and capacities is a path to empowerment for Jewish women. When I interviewed my grandmother for my senior project, she said of Jewish literacy in her synagogue, “The women come up for Haftorah. Women if they’re knowledgeable. They come up and read English prayers. We’re getting a more egalitarian siddur. They want to replace the one we have so that it incorporates women.” I realized that there can be multiple definitions of “egalitarian” and those multiple definitions can be different manifestations of a feminist philosophy. To include women “if they’re knowledgeable” goes by the feminist principle of gender being secondary to knowledge, forming a meritocratic rather than sexist society.

Read the rest here.

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I haven’t had much time to write this week, but I did discover something cool that I would like to share—something unexpected that touches on both feminism and on Judaism (well, really religion as a whole.) This New York Times article lead me to this website, AskPhilosophers.org. The site features questions from the public about philosophical issues and responses from modern-day philosophers, usually professors. Some of the questions resemble the kind of questions people would ask an advice columnist, others are the kind you’d think of when you think of philosophy, such as how to quantify suffering, and others are just kind of funny (think about why you can’t stop eating potato chips.)

There are a lot of categories on the site that I feel would fit in here: children, feminism, gender, identity, religion—and those are just the obvious ones. But I thought I would share one entry that I read in the “feminism” category that I found to be particularly interesting. Someone asked the question, “Is feminism falsifiable?” and received the following answer by Rachana Kamtekar:

‘Feminism’ can mean at least a couple of different things.

(1) As the view that women and men should have equal rights, or are owed equal respect, it’s as falsifiable or unfalsifiable as any other moral/political position, e.g. that people should have equal rights or be given equal respect, irrespective of their race. Your question about feminism as a moral or political view raises more fundamental questions: are moral statements statements of fact? or are they expressions of approval or disapproval? or just claims as to how people should behave? If they are claims about how people should behave, are they grounded in the view that so behaving would make everyone better off, or that such behaviour alone gives due recognition to the relevant parties moral status, or that good, well-adjusted people would behave in such a way?

(2) As the view that women and men have equal capacities, feminism should be falsifiable: either women and men do, or don’t have equal capacities, and we should be able to examine them to determine the answer. But there are real difficulties with doing this. First, there are lots of different capacities (depending on how you divide things up: e.g. there’s the capacity to do mathematics, but also the capacity to do trigonometry and to calculate compound interest–two capacities, or one?) It doesn’t seem that all of these capacities are equally important, or equally important in every context (compare the capacity to jump very high, the capacity to resolve social conflict, and the capacity to solve chemical structures). So how are we to measure whether women’s and men’s capacities are equal? If we could list capacities in some value-neutral way, and if we compared women and men on each of these, would our result be meaningful? Second, what we can measure is performance, and there may be lots of reasons that performance doesn’t accurately reflect capacities: the tests may be biased, or people with certain backgrounds may underperform because e.g. they think they’re bad at tests, or aren’t used to taking tests.

In addition to that comprehensive answer, she then goes on to recommend some additional reading.

What I liked about her answer was that in answering the reader’s question, she raised a question that I have often pondered myself about feminism. What is feminism exactly—an idea about the way people should be treated, or an idea about the inherent nature of people? And what happens if it is both, and those come into conflict? For example, I’ve read many articles talking about the inherent differences between men and women in science, but I struggle with the idea. Firstly, because I think societal factors also affect how many women go into science and how likely they are to push themselves in a science class versus an English class, and test scores cannot quantify that. But from a less rational point of view, I also have this inherent belief that women can do everything men can do, even when faced with evidence that may say contrary, because I believe that it should be that way—and that is where feminism becomes a moral and political idea (which is not to say that I don’t think it is rational to believe that men and women are equal, but I digress.) I have this gut feeling that men and women are equal, not because of facts or figures, but because somewhere inside of me it just feels right—and a feeling like that, what drives a lot of my feminism, is sometimes hard to rationalize or quantify.

Feminism is clearly hard to define, and luckily, Rachana Kamtekar does not try to stick a hard and fast definition to it. But I did walk away from reading her entry with somewhat of a clearer way of trying to define feminism, and a new way of thinking about my own, sometimes even contradictory, way of being a feminist. The site has a lot of other interesting things to read and think about, so I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

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I am standing on my side of the mechitza (divider that separates men and women to prevent distractions) at Yakar, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. This is my first Friday night service since my sister’s makeshift Bat Mitzvah one year ago. I stand with my prayer book, squinting at the foreign alphabet I can barely read and whose words I can never understand. I suddenly realize that although I might never know the meanings of these words, I can make out names I recognize, names whose stories I know.

There is singing and amidst the singing, fierce communal prayer. This is not an egalitarian synagogue. I knew that when I walked in and saw my friends disappear behind a white curtain and the rabbi follow suit. Yet this truly hits me when I look down at the page and the only names I recognize are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I grew up learning that their wives – Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah – are equally important. I wanted to read more about them – the women who persuaded their husbands to change the face of Judaism, who gave birth to tribes responsible for my existence in red tents. I went to synagogues where, immediately after we chanted “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov,” we chanted “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah.” Yet miles away from home, I realize that these names are missing. The mothers are gone. How are there sons without mothers?

How could we forget Sarah, the woman who birthed a nation when she was told she was infertile, who lost all hope of getting pregnant, who wanted to be a mother so badly that when she finally gave birth to Isaac, she made certain she raised a son capable of continuing a religion?

And Rebecca? A woman who obeyed her father’s orders to marry up, to marry Isaac, and to give birth to Judaism’s first twins, she was strong-willed and pragmatic. She went to any length to make sure Judaism – the birthright of one of her sons – was put in the right hands when her husband died, tricking her husband on his deathbed. Why is her epic story not mentioned with the simple courtesy of a name?

As for Leah and Rachel, where are they? Where are the names of sisters who loved the same man, but who were able to realize that sisterhood is what matters above all else? They raised each other’s children and lived a life of pressure in polygamy, all the while known for their individual identities – Leah for being intelligent and having a good eye of judgment and Rachel for being staggeringly beautiful and too mature for her age.

It is crucial that we remember the matriarchs. Too often, they are left out and forgotten, their contributions to Judaism ignored while their husbands sneak in all the credit. To honor the matriarchs means we hear the whole story instead of half of it. We empower ourselves as women by honoring those that came before us.

These women must be remembered not exclusively in the context of men. We must remember them as women in their own right, women who possess identities beyond wifedom and motherhood, women with lives and stories of their own and with a perspective that just might differ from that of men. These four women are symbols for thousands more that live today. It is my job to hear their stories in Shabbat melodies so that I can live out my own.

That is why on a hot Jerusalem night I stand as the white cloth waves with the too short and unexpected breeze and I hear the Aleinu being read. And I hear my Orthodox friends sing “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov.” And I make a decision. I decide I will no longer be passive. I decide I will say the names of the mothers – metaphorical or not – that made it possible for me to stand here in the first place. As the congregation moves onto the next verse, I whisper with triumph, “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah,” the names of my metaphorical mothers.

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Sorry I’ve been missing for a while now—the last week of school + finals have taken up my time. But now, summer, and I’m back!

Over the past week I’ve been reading various pieces about how you define feminism, specifically in the political sphere. But my thinking all comes back to this opinion piece by Jessica Valenti in the Washington Post about Sarah Palin and her “fake feminism.” She argues that Palin portrays herself as a feminist simply because she knows that doing so is a way to win the support of many women: she talks about how Palin continually alludes to the women’s suffrage movement, and uses the idea that those women were antiabortion to support herself being antiabortion. Palin advocates decisions that would, rather than empower women, negatively affect their lives: taking away their right to choose whether or not they want an abortion, as well as cutting funding for the Violence Against Women Act. Palin hopes for, in her own words, “empowering women by offering them a real choice,” with no more detail than that.

One line from the article really struck me: “If anyone — even someone who actively fights against women’s rights — can call herself a feminist, the word and the movement lose all meaning.” A lot of people who know I have this blog have been asking me for a while what I think about Palin painting herself as a feminist, and for a while, I said that she could call herself whatever she wants because there is no strict definition of feminism. But then I read this line, and I realized that there has to be some kind of line. Just because someone is a woman does not make him or her a feminist—someone who actively advocates for decisions that take away women’s freedoms cannot be, in my book, a feminist.

But the thing about identity politics is that people will believe you when you tell them you belong to a certain group: Palin is convincing people that she is a feminist. And not only that, but she is getting extra attention about it because it is coming from such a surprising place. Maybe this is a good omen for feminism, a sign that women from all across the spectrum can be feminists and disagree on issues. But personally, I see this as more of a problem. While it is great to have women, both liberal and conservative, in power, it is important that people, and other women in particular, know who is there to take care of their needs and who is not. Palin calling herself a feminist is swell, but being a feminist is what matters—not just saying the words, but advocating the policies and sending the right messages to people across America. Until she can walk the walk, I believe that we must all be frank about the fact that Palin is not a feminist, and that calling her one will only serve to get more support for policies that hurt, rather than help, women.

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This entry is cross-posted at JWA.

The work of the historian is to not only tell a story, but to tell it in a way that makes it real, vivid, alive, and human for the receiver. I learned this on Monday when I had the privilege of attending the Matrix Awards and hearing Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s acceptance speech. This wisdom instantly struck a chord because it describes exactly why I write and what I want to do with my writing. I want to tell a story that makes someone want to act because when statistics or historical jargon is turned into characters, the process of humanization begins and we start to act.

Here is my revelation from Monday: It is the work of the Jewish feminist to tell a real, vivid, alive, and human story. Why? The lives of Jewish women, while documented in Talmudic footnotes and filed away birth certificates, are not recorded in a way that allows them to be remembered. Judaism is all about storytelling. The Torah – the oldest foundation of Judaism off of which everything else is based – is a book of stories that are beautifully written, intricately woven together, and undoubtedly sexist in a way relevant to the times. We tell stories to remember. What is so enlightened about religion is that it does not matter if what we remember actually happened. What matters is how we remember it and how we share it and let it spread in the creation of tradition, ritual, and community.

Read the rest here.

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With awareness comes responsibility. Responsibility is hard work that not everyone likes. My family’s Seders this year allowed me to fully understand the meaning of “ignorance is bliss.” It is a whole lot easier to read without knowing what I am reading than to endure the painful understanding that there is a Jewish feminist duel between what is on the Haggadah page and what will come out of my mouth.

My Boca Raton hyper-stereotypical grandparents use the most generic of Haggadot: Maxwell House. They come free with a can of coffee grinds and they’re strictly to-the-point (i.e. they provide a pretty fast route to the food and random political banter). They’re also – shocker! – entirely male-centric and focusing exclusively on the patriarchs, calling God “He,” and the Four Children the “Four Sons.”

Let’s just say that for the past two nights, I got a little creative, much to the eye-rolling dismay of my younger sister who does not understand my personal investment in feminism and to the confusion of distant cousins who didn’t understand why what I said didn’t match up with the words I was supposed to be reading.

Judaism is based in texts that are rooted in a male lexicon. Is it my responsibility to change that? How do I explain to a Seder full of  confused faces why it matters so much to me that God is not called “He,” but rather “Hashem” (“The Name” does not have a gender) or why I believe that the Four Sons should actually be the Four Children, seeing as each child is a metaphor for emotions we all – regardless of gender – face daily: confusion, arrogance, intelligence, and shyness?

I do take it on as my responsibility. I have spent quite some time learning about the sexism society has thrust upon my generation to reverse and I need to remind myself that I learn for the sake of action and sometimes that means changing the language of a coffee can Haggadah so I can feel true to my feminism and true to my Judaism when I read it. That is how I internalize these texts my religion is based in; I can only internalize that which speaks to me. As a woman, I have the added responsibility of making texts like these – which linguistically speak solely to the men they address – represent my gender.

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