Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday morning media literacy lesson

So Clare has this little coloring book app on the family iPad. It's a little young for her now at 7 but she still enjoys it. It's full of pictures of fairies and princesses and elves and such.

This morning she showed me this picture that she'd completed and drawn her own background for. She was most proud of the way she'd drawn the wind and the flower petals blowing through the air, which is totally the best thing about the picture.

But I also noticed something else. I bet you did too.

And we had a little chat.

First I asked her about the fairy in her picture. "She looks teen-agery," was her first response. When I asked her to explain what that meant, she said, "weelllll, I didn't want to say it but she looks, you know, sexy."

My girl is so savvy. 

So we talked about what things made this picture sexy. Not that the fairy has a grown-up woman's body, but that the person who drew the picture decided to draw her a certain way: the dress, the pose, the expression on her face.

Then we looked at these.

the younger girl version
Clare was surprised when I said I thought they were a little "sexy" too. It's one kind of inappropriate for a picture you'd expect to see on a truck's mudflaps in a kid's coloring book. It's another, and I think worse, kind of inappropriate to draw children's bodies with sexy overtones.

Clare didn't see this pose as "sexy," because these pictures weren't "teenagery." That is, these fairies don't have boobs. And I might not have thought so if they weren't so obviously younger versions of the Sexy Fairy above. But that's why it's worse, and more insidious. A grown-up drew these, and made the choices to keep certain features which, on the "teenagery" fairy, are readily identifiable as sexy. The Bratzy bedroom eyes and the pouty full lips. The short skirt and the pose that makes you look right at her almost visible butt.

the toddler version
I mean really. The toddler fairy ought to be in a little magic diaper, not a cocktail party dress and mascara. Good grief.

Not all the choices on this app are this bad. The rest are more ho-hum run-of-the-mill passive-princess bad, but nothing else that's as overtly sexualized as these three. Which means that yes, the people behind the app are aware that it is possible to draw fairy princesses that don't look like they're posing for Playboy. And chose to do it anyway.

Delete delete delete.

When I told Clare that I'd be much more interested in a fairy she drew herself she grinned and immediately went to work.

When she showed me her picture she pointed out proudly that her fairy had a braid and a pretty dress and that she was not at all sexy. Because she's a kid fairy, and kids aren't sexy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

"I don't like your tone, young lady!"

I follow a lot of people on twitter--people I've found or been connected to through mutual friends or acquaintances--who know a whole lot more than I do about stuff I'm interested in. (If y'all are reading this, you know who you are.) As weird as it may seem, I'm learning immense amounts in 140-character chunks, about theology, gender, feminism, anti-racism, intersectionality...I may have a PhD in Theology and Science but what you really learn in doing a degree is just how much you still don't know. And so my twitterfeed is a constant stream of blessing and wisdom and angry hope.

More than once recently I've followed exchanges on the issue of "tone policing." I've had my own run-ins with this, of course, as has I bet pretty much anyone who's attempted to participate in a difficult conversation from anything other than a position of privilege relative to the topic.

Nowadays, however, this issue has more than simply personal resonance with me, as I am so keenly aware of the burden of appropriate "tone" in my representation of an organization that is so much more than simply me. If I miscalculate as JTB, well, I can take responsibility for that as myself. If I miscalculate in representing's different.

I've been blogging here at "rude truth" since 2005. And because this thing started--as I've said before--as an exercise in finding my "voice" the archive is in some ways a record of my experimentation in constructing it. And it's not always pretty. I am not a pretty girl.

I've done some cussing from time to time, is what I mean. The tone police can go wild on my archive.

While there's nothing I can do--or really want to do--to change any of that, it now feels like a potential liability for And so you'll notice that I've changed some things on the "about" page, to make it clear for everyone that in this space, as JTB, I represent only myself.

So this forms the context in which I've been following these recent conversations on tone and tone policing. I've been working on the fly, following my instincts, worrying about how to get it right, and these conversations have given me a way to analyze the issue more intentionally.

In particular, the twitter exchange between Rachel Held Evans and others a couple days ago, following some tone policing in the commentary of the recent CT article on modesty, captures the issues involved and provides a real-time snapshot of a bunch of smart people processing these things together. It prompted me, once more and for at least the fourth time, to try to write this blog post. But before I could get this done in a satisfactory way, I needed a way to process the issue that drew on all the wisdom of my twitterfeed.

So I made my first story at "I don't like your tone, young lady!" And if you've made it this far in this post, good news: the real stuff is there. You need to go read it, because it's there that you'll find the links to the real wisdom on this. Be blessed.

Friday, July 26, 2013

women aren't instruments

I'm not an amen-er.

Though it is often one of the few exceptions to the otherwise iron-clad rule that women must be silent in the churches of Christ (exceptions are made for singing in our distinctive a capella 4-part harmony and saying "amen"), while I'm an enthusiastic and competent alto, I've never been an amen-er. In my experience, few women are. (The habit of silence runs too deep. Plus, how mortifying it would be to be the only one saying "amen." And, what if someone else thought it was disruptive? The danger of this suddenly becoming sinful and a stumbling block is just too great.)

Even now, when I've spent years learning to use my voice, and how and when to use it, I find myself inhibited when it comes to the public vocal assent to gospel truth when I hear it.

This makes the moment I inadvertently amen-ed Claire Davidson Frederick's remark at the Christian Scholars Conference this past June all the more remarkable and personally memorable. That amen was torn out of me, from some deep place in my soul that resides somewhere close to my toenails. It came out of nowhere from the very depths of me, and my own voice surprised me.

Claire had said, "Please, please, whatever you do, don't put the issue of women in the church in the same context as using instruments in worship."

And I practically shouted, "Amen! And THANK YOU!" from the back of the room.

I had never heard this put quite so succinctly before. This is not a "worship issue."

We've talked about this thing for so long as "women's role in the church," and implicitly defined that for so long as "women's role in public worship," that we've overlooked that we're talking about people, not instruments.

When we talk about women in the church, we're talking about whether or not women are seen and valued as walking images of God, called to full expression of that image in service to others. If we frame the conversation in terms of "can women do X in worship" parallel to "can we use instruments in worship" then we've already reduced women to a status akin to inanimate objects. Women are not instruments.

This has an important implication for the way one particular scripture is called upon in our discussions--the one alluded to in the name of the site. The interpretation of Galatians 3:28 as a theological benchmark of human equality across social divisions, including gender, is typically refuted in non-egalitarian Churches of Christ by the observation that "this has nothing to do with worship practice."

And what I want to say, okay--and that's relevant how, exactly?

Because women aren't instruments. And this is not a "worship issue."

As a theologian, I read Galatians 3:28 as a sketch of what it means to be redeemed humanity, created in the image of God and called to live out that image in our relationships to each other, within the body of Christ and as ambassadors of Christ to the world. It's not a statement about how to worship. It's a statement about who we are and who we are called to be. If it has anything to do with worship, it's because the way in which we worship ought to reflect our identity as a redeemed humanity and the identity of the God who has made us, called us, and redeemed us.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I'm not arguing with you.

Growing up Church of Christ means, among other things, that you soak up a deep love for, respect for, and intimate familiarity with scripture. You learn how to navigate your Bible early, memorize the books of the Old and New Testaments, and I remember well the weekly memory verse and little golden star charts.

You also learn, as you mature, that taking scripture seriously means digging into the text and thinking through it, analyzing it, applying it logically...and that, at the end of this process, if you've done it right, you've come to the only possible correct conclusion about its meaning and proper application.

And this means, people who conclude otherwise are just, well, wrong. And they must be argued with, convinced of their wrongness, and persuaded to agree with the correct interpretation of scripture.

It's important to be right.

It is this spiritual formation in the Church of Christ that sent me into theological study. I needed to understand, or at least try my very best to understand, what I believed, and if, at the end of my efforts, I could not understand it all, I could release the remainder into mystery with the assurance that it was not simply an easy way out. 

Along the way, I learned that yes, it is important to be right. It's also not what the eternal fate of my soul depends on, and that's a good thing, because it's a certainty that I've gotten some things wrong, despite my best efforts. It's important to be right--but the stakes are not eternal; they are temporal. They are now. They are other people. They are the church. They are the world.

And I've learned that, despite my love of a good argument and my enjoyment of the process of analyzing and interpreting texts, that argument is not always the best way to engage others when an interpretation of scripture is at stake.

And, so, on this matter of the silencing of women in worship and exclusion of women from leadership in Churches of Christ, I'm not arguing. I'm not going to engage in debate with the goal of convincing you that you're wrong to believe what you do and practice what you do and interpret scriptures the way that you do. I'm not going to engage in argument to persuade you that I'm right. I'm just not arguing.

Instead, I'm inviting. I'm inviting you to reexamine scripture, belief and practice, experience the way God uses the words of women to encourage and instruct and edify, and consider the possibility that despite our best efforts, we get stuff wrong, and sometimes must repent.

There is nothing to fear from this, and it is my lifelong formation in the Churches of Christ that assures me of this. There is nothing to fear from going back to scripture, with an open, searching spirit, and asking, once again, "what does this mean? what shall we do with this now?" There is nothing to fear from listening to another interpretation, studying another position, and considering it as a real possibility, and making your best judgment. This is why has long offered an extensive annotated bibliography of study resources.

And so I invite you, not to an argument or a defense of your convictions, but to an open search of what God intends for the church, and for the women and men and children within it. And I am certain that God will bless you in it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

sisters aren't doin' it for themselves

I really love this song. The video makes me love it more.

But I had a sudden thought yesterday on the way home from church with my girls, listening to my girl power playlist and singing along with the chorus.

That's not what gender justice in the church is about. In the church, sisters are not doin' it for themselves.

We're doing it (seeking justice) for ourselves because we're doing it for everyone: us, them, you, all. It's not about seeking independence or autonomy, or individual rights--it's about recognizing our interdependence, our connectedness, our need of each other. It's about wanting to give everything we have; it's about wanting to serve the whole church.

When you listen to women discuss their ministries, you hear them express a desire to serve. And yet, when you listen to those who insist that women must be silent and bereft of authority, you hear a consistent suspicion that women are seeking power or attention or acting out of selfish ambition or jealousy. That they're just doing it for themselves.

That's one reason the Half the Church podcasts are so powerful. It's difficult--I want to even say impossible--to listen to these women talk about the desire to serve and characterize them as self-serving.

Go on: I dare you. Listen. And really ask yourself: are these sisters "doin' it for themselves?"

Friday, July 19, 2013

"I'm a pin-cess!"

Photo: Instead of calling her a princess, tell your daughter she's ...

A couple weeks ago, Zadie was twirling around on the Turkish carpet in the hallway, the one I literally carried myself all the way home from Turkey years and years ago, giggling happily--and then she stopped, looked directly at me, grinned and announced, "I'm a pin-cess!"

And as I smiled at her I thought, "Where in the name of all things holy did she get THAT from?!"

It's not that our house is exactly an official princess-free zone. We've got crowns and tiaras and dress-up dresses and about a million magic wands. But we also have doctor coats and fingerprint kits and science books and cars and a ton of old-fashioned non-gendered Legos. And "princess" isn't a thing we call our girls--as either endearment or compliment. I'm not sure exactly why or how it counts as either of those, really, so it's not like I stop myself. It just doesn't come to mind when I reach for an affectionate way to name my girls. When Z was littler I started calling her "Scamp." Brent didn't like that, so we switched to "Scout"--a nice literary nickname. But I find nowadays what I call her most of the time is "Zadie-bug," which fits nicely with "Clare-bear."

Anyway, just goes to show--there's no way to fence this stuff out entirely. Better have a plan how to deal with it when your 2-year-old announces her newly acquired royal status because someone, somewhere is going to leak it to her that she is supposed to be "a princess." This stuff is everywhere.

Including our churches.

My plan? I continue my campaign of quiet but unrelenting subversion. Clare's turning into a verifiable tiny feminist. :)

But it would help if parents weren't alone in navigating this princess-centric culture of toys and media and books and clothes and on and on and on. It would help if our churches, instead of colluding with the princess culture in the messages they send to our little girls about who they are, were conducting their own campaign of quiet but unrelenting subversion--instead of giving them pink Bibles and calling them "God's princesses." YUCK.

That's what the list in the picture above makes me think about--what would this list of princess alternatives look like if we asked ourselves, seriously, what sort of biblical models of girlhood and womanhood the Bible offers us?


What if instead of teaching our daughters to be "princesses," the church joined with us in teaching our daughters what it means to be the image of God?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

taken March 24, 2012

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Everyday sexism: Wimbledon version

It's not all strawberries and cream, y'all.

Take a look at this screenshot of my twitter feed from earlier:

Imagine proving you're the top professional in your field, in front of millions, and instead of commenting on your skill, your stamina, your determination, your years of preparation, the public commentary is framed by discussion of your looks and what a shame it is that your "pretty" opponent couldn't get it together to beat you.

And then let's consider briefly how that framing demeans your opponent as well.

And then, let's consider how this public, mainstream commentary gives implicit permission for much uglier commentary by the semi-anonymous hordes on the Internet (warning: the language in the tweets pictured is appalling):

File this away as Exhibit ZZZ for proof that no, the world is not a post-feminist utopia.

And once again ask, how does the church witness to the world here? Are we really that different? And shouldn't we be? 

So what are we waiting for?


Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Liberating Barbie?

Recently Melissa Atkins Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies and author of the forthcoming Redefining Girly, sent this tweet:
Asking for insights on how Barbie can be used in adventurous stories during play
Melissa's blog post notes that a lot of people, a LOT, shrug off the criticisms of Barbie with a "I played with Barbies, and I turned out just fine" response. Well, I played with Barbies too. And I think I've turned out to be fantastic...but I'm not sure we need to give Barbie credit, or even a pass, on that basis. Not least because, as Melissa points out, Barbie back then is not Barbie now.

A Barbie science station with swiveling chair and gadgets: they don't make 'em like this nowadays. (Thanks to my friend Wendolyn for giving us this awesome piece of her childhood!)

On the other hand, during my research for Cyborg Selves, I came across Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls by Kim Toffoletti, which theorizes Barbie's plastic figure as plastic in a metaphorical sense, and describes the subversive ways that Barbie can function--for example, in transgender play. It was this book that, when Clare first started asking for a Barbie doll, inspired The Great Barbie Project of 2010: my attempt to reconstruct and subvert in various ways a bunch of Barbies from our local thrift store. I cut hair short, I dyed hair pink and blue and gray, I drew tattoos, I drew wrinkles, I drew punk rocker makeup, I tried to erase existing makeup, I sawed off legs at the knee and made artificial cheetah sprinting legs out of duct tape and popsicle sticks, I bought a tuxedo outfit a la' Maddow, I sewed a pair of jeans and a muumuu and knitted a maternity dress.

While I deemed that mostly a failure at the time, with the sole exception of the knitted preggie Barbie dress, I think the strategy itself has some merit--though also, some hard limits. Barbie can--indeed does--in some sense serve as a blank slate to be projected onto, a kind of "everywoman" template that can be filled in according to the notions of those engaging with her in play. This then has some potential for liberating, adventurous play--even when the ready-made options are limited and myopically princessy in focus. We can encourage our kids to disregard those artificial restrictions and act out their own interests. Barbie can be an astronaut mommy who lives on the moon and studies moon rocks with her kids, if that's what your kid is into. Have space suit, will travel.

I still feel, however, that my conclusion at the end of the Barbie Project, that the hard plastic body of a Barbie represents the limit of its potential for subversive play, is correct. Partly this has to do with the pragmatic difficulty of altering a Barbie's basic shape. Although there is, apparently, a thriving subculture of Barbie alteration, the skills and tools needed to alter the basic body shape went far beyond what I had at my disposal. I could cut and dye hair, change clothes--but anything beyond simple outfits or cosmetic changes was beyond me. A more serious consideration, though, is the same "universal" aspect of Barbie that allows her to function as an "everywoman" template--and the way this makes Western blond big blue eyed beauty the "universal." Fine, protest that there are brunettes and different skin shades, etc.--they're blond Barbie with cosmetic changes: same face, same body. Clones with darker pigmentation. (See here for a summary of discussion regarding the "new black Barbies"--who still basically fall within Eurocentric beauty ideals.)

So, while I'm glad that we have the old-school Barbie science station with the awesome 70's chic swiveling chair, I'm even more glad that Clare doesn't much play with the Barbies she has.

It feels like this is where the conclusion should go, but there's one more twist.

A couple years ago--also, as it happens, as part of researching Cyborg Selves--I came across a blog post from a transhumanist point of view on Toy Story opining that what we really need in the world is more kids like Sid (I can't track this link down now, unfortunately). I agreed and disagreed--Sid's lack of empathy was what made him the 'villain' in contrast to Andy, and we certainly don't need to valorize lack of empathy--but, his creativity and skill in constructing posthumany-wumany type toys was, totally, absolutely, cool. And yes, we ought to be encouraging our kids to think outside the prefabbed play options they're handed, and do cool imaginative stuff with their stuff!!!

And so, I'm even more glad that Clare's Barbies are currently a heap of disarticulated body parts, and that when she plays with them, she tends to mix and match pieces freely. At the moment, the most complete Barbie is a single leg with a head stuck on it. And many of the faces have, um, custom permanent makeup jobs and very special haircuts.

If there's a way to capitalize on the plasticity of Barbie with a minimum of damaging body-image internalization, I'm pretty sure my 7-year-old has found it.