SSL Interview: Dana Edell of SPARK part 1

"The long term goal is we want to reach the cultural tipping point where it is not okay, and it is not profitable to sexualize girls. So that's an ambitious goal, but we're not going to stop till we get there. We have so much evidence at this point for how these negative images are really hurting girls. There have been studies showing links to depression, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders, and low academic achievement, and getting worse grades, and also it's bad for boys. It's creating very distorted views about what girls are supposed to be like and what relationships are supposed to be like. Boys are often portrayed as predators who only want to have sex with girls. So, it's harmful to everybody, and it seems like a problem that is in plain sight but nobody is really talking about it as a major problem because it's everywhere." This is from the interview I conducted with Dana Edell, Executive Director of SPARK. I had the pleasure of talking with her over the phone this July 30th.

SPARK is still in its infancy.  It began with a Summit in October 2010, and Dana was named their first director in May 2011. It's growing rapidly, though, and there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm in this organization. Dana told me,

Once we started talking about it, people were like, where can we sign up? It's growing very quickly because there's such a need and such a hunger to stop the machine and to just say, what the fuck? What can we do?

What the fuck, indeed. Now, I think Dana makes a really important point when she says that it's a problem in plain sight. Depicting young teens and girls as hyper sexual objects and abundantly marketing items to them that are meant to sexify is the norm. We do not do the same to boys. Now, I know it's hard to get too excited about an issue when the thing to rage against is status quo, so let's just focus on this idea of the sexualization of girls for a minute. Take Dana's comments on the upcoming holiday.

We're really seeing October as a big Take Over October month by SPARK because it's connected to  Halloween, which is really one of the worst times of the year in connection with the sexualization of girls. The corporate culture and the marketing culture and the media culture around what Halloween means for girls and how, you know, it's almost a cliche now - sexy nurse, sexy school girl, sexy fire girl. So, we really want to reclaim that holiday for girls and think about that as a way to launch ideas about taking sexy back and being powerful and sexy in ways that are not dictated by your local Halloween store that is saying this is what a sexy costume looks like, and this is what it means to be sexy. 
I mean that pic up there was on the first page listed under a "girls Halloween costume" Google search. Pirates don't dress like that. It's highly impractical, people, really. The only reason to have a pirate costume with an above the knee skirt, tall lacy boots, fishnet stockings, and an off the shoulder blouse is to make it sexy. Although the "sexy" anything trend in adult women's costumes is annoying at best, at least it seems a little less problematic that the main point of this huge costume trend is to be the object of desire. For 8 year old girls, however, you'd think, as a culture, we would encourage more important reasons to get a costume. We do for boys.

Let's take this a step (or really more than a step) further, though, and look at an ad for the dual-zone climate control feature in a KIA car. This won a Silver Press Lions award at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Basically, it won a print advertising award, and it's...a bit distasteful. Although direct action projects are not the main work that SPARK does, they did lead one in regards to this ad, as Dana discusses below. (Check out the ad in full size HERE)

There was this ridiculously offensive, horrific, one of the worst ads I've ever seen in my life, that won this huge advertising contest...It was this really really disgusting ad that definitely evokes pedophilia in a "funny" way...It completely sexualizes a girls who is probably 6 or 7 years old in the ad...and it won this huge award, so we were like, "What the Fuck!" This is not okay...This ad is really offensive, and what kind of world are we living in where not only is this totally normalized, but it's winning award? So we launched a petition through Change.org to get Kia to not use the ad and return their award and started putting pressure on them. Since then, Kia has actually released a statement saying (which is kinda ridiculous) that they had nothing to do with the ad - saying some advertising company used their name to create this ad which won the awards. So, I think they were freaking out thinking, "Oh my god, we're a family car company, and we do not want to be connected to pedophilia." So these actions are having impact. We're seeing it. We're trying to put pressure on corporations, on media agencies to be more accountable for what they're producing, to take action, and to also inspire. (The sexualization of girls) is a horrible crisis situation but it is reversible.

So, let's just say that the media situation in our culture is not doing so well by our girls. SPARK is dedicated to remedying that. There are a lot of things I love about SPARK's approach. I love that they are actually engaging girls in the solution. I love that they are not coming from a point of merely protecting girls from sexualization, but helping girls foster a space where they can develop their own unique and healthy relationship to sexuality in our culture. I love that they are taking on this issue.

This issue is only barely touched on in our movie, Science Sex and the Ladies. It is largely outside the scope, but it is an essential sister issue to what we discuss in the movie, and it needs to be addressed if the culture of female sexuality is to move forward. That is why I wanted to include this interview in my blog. Here's what Dana has to say about the organization.

SPARK is about, well, we say that it's about taking sexy back and really empowering girls to understand for themselves what is sexy for them and not what other people are telling them sexy is. Our cultural definition of sexy right now is a very, very limited definition that is not very layered or textured or unique or specific to particular girls or to specific girls' bodies and to cultures and histories and desires. It is a very rigid and very narrow definition of what sexy is...big breasts, blond hair, skimpy clothing.... It's not necessarily defined by the girls themselves. So, we believe fully in having a very healthy sexuality, expressing desire, and expressing your own sexuality in a unique way that is comfortable and confident; that represents a strong girl who is making choices for herself and not following things that corporations or media agencies have decided about what sexy is going to be this year.
 Rock on SPARK. I have plenty more to discuss about this organization, particularly about the amazing girls at SPARK who are putting a critical eye to our everyday cultural happenings and activating for change. However, I will leave those thoughts for my next blog entry. Till then, check out the SPARK site, where I highly recommend reading some of these girl's blogs.

update: check out the 2nd part of this interview HERE.


KLIT-uhr-us or kli-TOR-is?

Okay, I've been neglecting this blog, yet I don't have a lot of time to write, so I'm going to put a question to you, my loyal readers. It is a question of epic proportions. How do you pronounce the word for the female organ of sexual pleasure...KLIT-uhr-us or kli-TOR-is? Maybe you just avoid the issue all together and simply say clit. I have always said kli-TOR-is. Someone recently told me it sounds like the name of a dinosaur, and I will admit - it does kinda sound like it could be the cousin of the Brontosaurus. However, I've always thought KLIT-uhr-us sounds really pompous - like a snooty Englishman from the 18th Century is nervously teaching an anatomy class. Oddly enough, though, it seems I'm a bit mistaken (thanks a lot advice on ThirdAge.com) . My pronunciation is actually the English version and KLIT-uhr-us is the American pronunciation. You can listen to the American pronunciation at MacMillen Dictionary page HERE.

Anyway, if you are out there and reading this, tell me how it is people.


Fight Club - The SSL Review

Charlie's youngest brother was hanging out with us this weekend, and as we were looking for movies to watch, we realized that he had never seen Fight Club. Being that he was 9 when it came out in 1999, it's not surprising, but we thought we should remedy it. Charlie and I were 19 when Fight Club came out, and it was, well, it was a formative movie for both of us. It is solidly in both of our top 5, although possibly in different places. I realized, though, after seeing it this time, that I needed to write an SSL Review, and that it would certainly not put Fight Club into the "progressive" category when it comes to depictions of female sexual response. I'll get to the SSL criticism later, but for now, I'm just going to talk about the movie for a sec.

After I saw it the first time, it made me feel all excited inside (and not just because of Brad Pitt's rock hard body all over the screen - which to be fair was super hot). It was a movie that really showed me the potential of the movie medium, and watching it again (I've seen it more than a couple times, but I haven't seen it in probably at least 5 years), it brought back all those feelings. This movie is rich and full - the editing, the design, the story telling style - the special effects are detailed and motivated and still hold up 12 years later...and the sound, come on, the sound.

It's a movie that really uses all its resources, as a movie, to immerse the viewer. A lot of people think that books are always better than the movie, but I think that's usually because the movie is trying to engage the viewer like a book, when it should be engaging us like a movie. That's what this movie did, and it really opened my eyes to that idea...and by the way, this movie is better than the book. But, it has it's flaws too (which also - by the way - are worse in the book). The most prominent to me is something I didn't actually notice when I first saw this movie at 19. Let me just say it this way. A story that carves out intricate, dynamic, layered male characters and interesting worlds in which those male characters can act, yet either fails to do the same for the existing female characters or fails to recognize that female characters could be engaged in the worlds that have been created - well a movie like that is not as rich or as innovative as it could be, and let me tell ya - there are a lot of these stories out there.

Also on a similar note, I just want to mention something, because it is so clearly a result of a male lazily writing a female. Marla - the only big female role in the movie is weird and surface interesting, but sadly has no dynamism in this script and ends up just being a classic 1-dimensional girlfriend character but with a darker exterior. Anyway, she walks up to the main character and tells him she's wearing a bridesmaid dress she got from a thrift store. She says something to the effect that "someone loved this dress intensely for 1 day." First off, it's common knowledge that women generally don't like bridesmaid dresses. And secondly, even if someone likes their bridesmaid dress, I feel pretty confident in saying that no woman in the history of weddings has ever loved her bridesmaid dress intensely - ever. So, I'm not saying a man can't write a woman, because I think it can be done well. What I do want to say though, to my dear Fight Club, is that a man can't write a woman well when he is merely thinking about his version of a female stereotype and writing what he thinks this pretend idea of a woman might say and do. That's all I'm gonna say about that. Otherwise I love the film - except I have to do a little more critiquing, because that's what an SSL Review is all about.

Here's some critical points we can confidently know; specifically points that are important in understanding what this movie insinuates about female sexual response.

1.Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is fantastic in bed. We know this because Marla says he is, and I see no sign of sarcasm or irony when she says this.


Real Job Vs. This Movie

So, in my day job, I'm a corporate scientist. I honestly enjoy the job. I'm not saying that if I won 50 million dollars that I'd still be working, but the work is challenging. There's room to grow. I work beside a lot of really hard-working, interesting and fun people...and the benefits are fantastic. I have no interest in losing a job like this. This, my friends has been on my mind as we here at AnC are beginning to rile ourselves into a promotion fury for our upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

I mean this isn't a cute family movie I'm making here (well, actually there are some moments of cute). This is a movie about the American culture of female sexuality that quite bluntly discusses things like orgasm and masturbation. The word "clitoris" or "clit" is used more times than i could count. So, unsurprisingly, I only talk about this at work with people I've known for so long that they knew me at the beginning of my endeavors into this movie (or with select co-workers I've been drinking with). I rarely even talk about the fact that I make movies, because that leads to the inevitable question, "What are you working on?" I don't want to lie and I don't want to drop the CLIT bomb at work, so this movie has felt something like a secret life at times.

However, I'm pretty much super passionate about the message of this movie, and this subject has consumed my life for years, so now that we have a movie done enough to begin heavy promotion, I'm going to go full tilt. That, however, means that random people at work may hear tell about this movie, notice my name associated and ask me about it. This is all probably fine...unless it isn't.

I'm all about this movie, but I am very much not about making people at work uncomfortable or putting my job at risk in any way. So, just recently, I went to my supervisor and told her my predicament. She was totally cool and supportive, and encouraged me to keep the lines of communication open so that if anyone should feel uncomfortable or make me feel uncomfortable that we take care of it quickly and with the least pain possible. Like I said, it's a good job full of good people, and I'm lucky to have it. I really don't imagine there will be any problems. However, it's good to know things are in place to smooth anything out that may blindside me.


SSL Interview: Miriam Reumann

I will not mince words here. I like Miriam Reumann's book. I've read a fair share of long dry books as I was researching for this movie. Yes, many were quite useful, but honestly Reumann's book was one of the most useful and most informative, and it was not a bit dry. It was fun, and quirky, and tells a unique story about an iconic time in American history. In fact this is such a well-researched and interesting book that as I was looking through it to find questions I wanted to ask her, I found it a little hard to come up with any. I kept reading a few lines and thinking, "wow – that’s so interesting," but there just wasn’t a question because the book was so thorough. It’s just a really great read. 

This book, American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports  is actually the main inspiration for a section of the movie. Part of the story Reumann tells involves America's "discovery" of the female orgasm in the period after WWII, and she does a fantastic job of discussing the expectations, worries, and talking points  surrounding this new idea that women (married women of course) could and in fact should orgasm. The middle section of our movie Science Sex and the Ladies, considers the impact of this cultural shift on our current understanding of female sexuality (here's a clue - surprisingly little has changed). The historical point of view I was able to take from this book  really helped me illustrate the stark differences between the status quo perception of female sexuality and the perspective of female sexuality that Science Sex and the Ladies promotes.

However, as I said before, this book is chock full of great info, and it tells many other stories too - about marriage, masculinity, and homosexuality among other things. The larger idea in the book goes something as follows: The cultural climate after WWII facilitated a unprecedented public discussion of sex, and in fact, sex became a matter of American "character." How Americans dealt with sex was often discussed as related to the very core of what America was like as a country. Although there were disagreements among experts at the time (were Americans too repressed or too promiscuous?), there was widespread agreement that these questions were utterly important to the American way of life. Screw the 60's. This was the real American Sexual Revolution. 

I thought it was important to interview Reumann in this SSL interview series, because, outside of the fact that aspects of her book have added unique insight into the movie we've made, I also appreciate that her work is an intensely researched and incredibly innovative look at America’s relationship to sexuality. Deeply held assumptions about gender, that she clearly reveals to be important influences on the cultural discussion of sex, are  as pervasive today as they were in the post WWII period. Her discussion is progressive, thoughtful, and relevant to a more realistic understanding of female sexuality.

I contacted Miriam Reumann earlier this year and was happy to find that she was funny, engaging, and happily open to an interview. We eventually worked out a time, and I conducted an interview over email. I wrote a question. She answered. Then I wrote another question. The email thing was her idea, and I loved it. I am 10 times more relaxed writing than talking, so I had a great time, and I think she did too.

How did you get interested and started in the type of research you did for American Sexual Character? 

In grad school, when I started thinking about dissertation topics my parameters were pretty broad: I knew that I wanted to do something in the early or mid 20th century, and that I was interested in gender and sexuality. One of my professor/mentors, Anne Fausto-Sterling, said in passing one day that there was very little work on Kinsey, so my interest was piqued. I knew the general narrative about the Reports (huge, shattered common perceptions, important and controversial, etc., etc.) but realized that I’d never actually read any of either Sexual Behavior in the Human Male or Female, so I checked out incredibly thick and heavy copies from Brown’s library. Now, I wish I could say that looking at them filled me with exciting and original ideas, but the reverse was true – I found them so incredibly dull that I instead wondered how on earth anyone had ever seen these studies as remotely sexy, or threatening, or even readable! That, as it happens, wasn’t a bad question, and so as the dissertation research – and later the book – evolved, my central concern remained how they were USED, as opposed to what they actually found, or meant. That turned out to be useful in keeping me focused, since it meant I didn’t have to get mired down in the kinds of debates about accuracy or representativeness that Kinsey’s biographers cared about, and it also meant that I got to look not only at sources like serious journalism but also wacky popular culture – for years, I looked at every Kinsey artifact that cropped up on ebay, and lots of them, like cartoons or film posters, made it into my research. That said, I also got pulled in lots of unexpected directions, like when I discovered foreign policy analyses from the 1950s that focused obsessively on American sexuality as a key to our success or failure in the Cold War, and the central concept and title just flowed from there.  

I'm impressed you read through both the Kinsey reports. I have looked a tiny bit through them, but really couldn't bring myself to do any more than skim slightly and to read books like yours - that were about them. From reading American Sexual Character, it really does seems as though you went though an insanely immense amount of resources. How long were you researching and what were some of the most surprising or interesting things you came across?