TED is a conference that happens every year in cities all over the world where lots of smart people are invited to get together to present their ideas—they are not allowed to promote a product—and the videos of their talks are posted online and serve as a great way to excuse procrastination by saying you were doing life homework. I was invited to go to TEDxWomen, an offshoot of TED that was all about ladybusiness, at the Paley Center for Media in New York last week to cover it for Rookie, and I was excited and all, but as somebody whose feminism usually feels either very personal or very angry—writing stuff like this, or listening to stuff like this—I wasn’t sure how engaging something that felt so…diplomatic would be. Speeches. Talks. Lectures. It seemed like it would be too professional to be relatable. When I went into the room reserved for ~The Media~ it was a bunch of women sitting at laptops and iPads watching the talks on one screen and tweets mentioning the event popping up in real time on another. They literally had 30 minutes set aside with box lunches and Vitamin Waters that was called, on the schedule, “Networking Break.” I was dressed girlily in a top covered in hearts—not exactly businesslike—and was way younger than everyone else in the room. My mom had to take me and kept asking me if I wanted any of the raisins she had brought in her purse (I KNOW). Hey, know what doesn’t make you look professional? Requiring a chaperone, wearing a shirt with hearts all over it, and being a teenage girl.
I was comforted when I remembered that these women were feminists, and so none of that mattered to them. At the first Networking Break I met a few awesome ladies—Chloe from Feministing, Jamia from the Women’s Media Center (started by Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda) and her own wonderful writing, and Deanna, who had cool white hair and with whom I talked briefly about being a feminist who loves fashion. We all talked about feminist sites and such (to me, the best way to start learning about feminism—here’s a great list, and not just because Rookie is on it!). When Chloe left, Jamia reminded her to email her “because I want you to be a part of this,” talking about events Jamia plans for WMC. I have to say, it’s nice to know you’re in a community where women want to help one another be successful and get opportunities instead of compete.
I was happy to see also that the things people ended up talking about ranged from the more big-picture political stuff, to the more personal things I find easier to relate to. The ones below were my favorites, though we couldn’t be there the whole day because I had work to do and sleep to catch up on.
Rachel Simmons and a 13-year old named Claire who tells a very familiar story about mean girls and friendships. If you only have time to watch one of these, this one actually is “life homework.” I swear it will make you feel better about yourself and confidence and your friendships.
Busisiwe Mkhumbuzi is 17! What a badass. Her story will make you feel a million different emotions at once but you should just hear her tell it. Also, it’s a good way to learn about V-Day.
Project Girl, because as much as it is intellectually stimulating to talk about this stuff, making something creative and angry is also really, really powerful.
It was all good brain food, and probably the best kind of it, because while my brain did a lot of fist-pumping, the conference made me think about why I’m a feminist. It ended up not really being about total enlightenment, because at the end, I still felt a little uneasy—but a good kind of uneasy, the kind that forces you to think about things, and try to make life in general a better thing.
First of all, I’m a feminist for the most basic reason: I believe in gender equality. For men, women, and people who don’t identify as either. It’s that simple. Sexism hurts everyone and the less of it, the better.
I’m a feminist because I don’t think my being a girl should mean I’m judged any differently than if I wasn’t. Judged on my looks before merit (or at all!), or on if I’m a Blonde Taylor Swift or a Brunette Taylor Swift.
I’m a feminist because I don’t want to hate myself, and because I started liking myself much more when I found out that a lot of the things that I thought were wrong with myself were actually OK, it’s just that society has a history of targeting women for those things.
I’m a feminist because I don’t want to hate other girls, and my friendships became much more valuable once I got over more dumb society stuff: jealousy and girl-hate, afraid of being honest in case I’d seem too “girly,” etc.
I’m a feminist because while my gender has not been much of a barrier for me other than in those personal ways—self-esteem, unwanted male attention, girl hate, etc.—it would be an asshole move to ignore the fact that other people’s lives are considerably harder because they are female. The facts are too scary for it all to be pure coincidence.
Some people like to argue that even having a thing called feminism, and pointing out that men and women are not equal, that there is ANY DIFFERENCE AT ALL between them, is counterproductive. The thing is: people know men and women are not equal. Women in this country make only $.78 to a man’s dollar for the same work. Feminism is just about doing something about it. Pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. The same goes for tattoos, if you’re wondering, which I have learned the hard way. And so this stupid Ed Hardy thing I got one awful drunken night persists on my right biceps. I never said I was a role model!!!!!!
For that reason, though, I was skeptical about the idea of having a TED just about women stuff. Wouldn’t it be more effective to integrate feminist ideas into normal TED instead of making it a special occasion type thing? Wasn’t this just preaching to the choir?
Wanna hear something a little scary? In American culture, women are currently doing the best they ever have—many more are going to college, doing well in grade school, and going to graduate school. But while the expectation for being smart/creative/witty has been raised, the expectation for the more traditional stuff—being a good mom, being conventionally attractive—has stayed as high as ever. There hasn’t been a tradeoff. Now you just have to be good at everything. To quote Nicki Minaj, “But when you’re a girl, you have to be, like, everything… you have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this, and you have to be that, and you have to be nice, and you have to…it’s like, I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being.” To quote Rachel Simmons’s talk above, “Be powerful…but be nice. Be smart…but don’t make anyone uncomfortable with their intelligence. Be active…but sexy and skinny in the meanwhile.” To quote the rant a 17-year-old named Lexi sent us to publish a few weeks ago, “It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation. I’m not allowed to be fat, but I’m not allowed to go on a diet either… I’m not allowed to be dumb, but I’m not allowed to be smarter than a boy. I’m not allowed to do drugs or drink, but I’m considered boring if I don’t. I’m supposed to be an empowered woman, but if I ask for respect dudes will just call me an annoying bitch. Heck, if I wait to have sex I’m labeled a prude, but if I lost my virginity today there would be a lot of people thinking that slut.”
By the last talk of the conference I realized that’s why having a TEDxWomen is a good, necessary thing. It gives us a chance to talk about feminist issues, whether it’s just among women at the conference or on Twitter. If society gives special negative attention to women, I think it’s a positive thing to give special attention to figuring all of that out. Even if most of the people there already know they’re feminists, it’s still a tricky thing to work out one’s own ideas, and it was refreshing—milk-with-ice refreshing—to hear other people’s thoughts.
At the very end of the day, I got to meet Gloria Steinem and talk to her for a few minutes. I just wanted to hug her and call her Mommy, in a totally non-weird way. She was so warm and sweet, and answered my questions thoughtfully even though she had to scoot for a fancy dinner and totally could’ve gotten away with saying short, cryptic things.
ME: You’ve said feminists today need to be angrier. Do you have any ideas for finding an outlet or applying it if you’re in a town where the people might be narrow-minded, or if you’re just getting into it? What is a good place for that anger, and what do you do with it?
GLORIA: Well, first of all it’s an energy cell, no? It makes your blood go and your ideas come and so on, so if we think about it more positively, as an energy cell, I think that helps. And also remember that if we don’t express our anger, it can turn into depression. What depression is, is anger turned inward. So that’s one more reason to use it. The only tempering thing I would say is we do need to treat other people as we would want to be treated, so if you see an injustice or we see something we’re angry at, I think we should talk to the people involved as we would want them to talk to us if we were messing up in some way. You can escalate after that if they don’t listen! [Laughs] But at least to try and do that in the first place, because you’re really doing them an honor by telling them the truth. And you want that in return.
Obviously in a lot of ways things are easier for girls now—around my age (I’m 15)—than they were in the ’50s and ’60s, but are there any ways in which you think we have it harder?
Yeah, I do think it’s harder in the sense that you may be more endangered. You know, we were probably more protected. It was restrictive, it was like being protected in prison. [Laughs] But there are dangers that come with being just out there. There may well be more violence, for instance, and more sexual violence now than there was. Hard to know, because I’m not sure whether it was just not being reported then or not. And there’s also the pornification of culture—there was always pornography, but it was underground. Now it’s everywhere—it’s on computers, it’s hard to escape. It normalizes violence against girls and women, and it normalizes a certain body, so that now girls have the means to and maybe feel pressured into, you know, having breast implants, looking a certain way. The most distressing thing to me lately is that plastic surgeons say that girls and women are coming asking to have their labia trimmed off. Isn’t that awful? Because the pornography idealizes a kind of almost preadolescent body—you know, the shaved pubic hair and no labia and so on. So people come to think that’s normal or desirable. So you know, I don’t remember that any of those dangers existed when I was growing up.
When you say that we’re more endangered now, do you mean because of the internet?
Yeah, just everywhere. Violence against women—the good news is we know it’s wrong and it’s illegal, you know? When I was growing up, something like domestic violence didn’t even have a name. And rape was always blamed on the victim. So it’s much better now—we can talk about it, we have laws about it. But on the other hand, [now] there is the sexualization of younger and younger girls and the spread of the pornography which is not about sex, it’s about violence.
That last answer perfectly explains one last reason of mine for being a feminist. Not just about sex and violence, but about the fact that a lot of the issues today are more gray than black or white, which is probably why they’re harder for people to see. Rape is illegal, but rape culture still exists, and makes it easier for 15 out of 16 rapists to never have to spend a day in jail. Sleeping with minors is illegal, but culture still sexualizes younger girls and fetishizes youth, and makes it harder to like your body even when it’s just doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing, and makes it harder to figure out this whole “sex” thing when you’re supposed to be sexy but also look like a six-year-old.
But these are the things we try to figure out at Rookie, because none of us are that perfect pretty-and-smart-and-everything girl/woman/superhero who has all the answers, and the great thing about this whole “internet” thing is that we’re able to talk about it, all together, like a big happy family, or a family where people sometimes respectfully disagree, or where a drunk uncle sometimes gets an Ed Hardy tattoo. Continue to let us know how we’re doing, OK? But if you give me any grief about my tattoo I’m just gonna get like eight more just to piss you off. ♦