The Art of 800 Words

Event: Writing Workshop at Mills College with Jennifer Mattson
Date/Time: Wednesday, October 22nd, 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Location: Mills College, Oakland, CA (directions)
Cost: Free to Mills College students and staff, $10 for the public

Jennifer MattsonInternational reporter, Jennifer Mattson, will lead a writing workshop from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 22 in the Faculty Staff Lounge at Mills College in Oakland. Mattson, who covers international news, women’s issues, and arts and culture—and has formerly worked as a network news producer for CNN and NPR, among others—will discuss the art of the 800-word essay, from op-eds to personal essays. Find out what makes an essay work and get practical tips for publishing your own. The event is free to Mills College students and staff, and $10 for the public. For more information, contact Emily Beaver.

The Two Women Talking Test

UPDATE: 16 September 2014
The MacArthur Foundation just named Alison Bechdel in its 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows. She is one of 21 “exceptionally creative individuals being recognized for a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future.” Bechdel is a cartoonist and graphic memoirist. Her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008) realistically captured the lives of women in the lesbian community as they influenced and were influenced by important cultural and political events. @AlisonBechdel

Here is an EWIP post from November 2013 by Claudia Smukler which cites the Bechdel Test, as the media standard that has persisted as a measure of (any) agency of the female characters in a film.

In the succession of media stories noting when women are “the first” to do something there is the potential to inspire: Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space; Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady. No doubt each example encourages others, yet, I am wary of getting too hung up on the rush to celebrate the milestone of the first woman.
EWIP 2013-women talkingOne is not a great indicator of faring very well against gender or racial bias, whether in the White House, in scientific achievements, or in the characters we see in movies. Pointing to the first at something is problematic when the designation has the tendency to single out her gender or non-white status as a preface that often overshadows the persistent bias. Not that we can’t feel inspired by the firsts, but I’m anxious to move on to a measure that demonstrates more forward motion. So, instead of firsts, how about measuring the interaction of “two,” as in, two women talking.

Alison BechdelThe Bechdel test does just that. Recently the Swedish Film Institute and a Scandinavian cable TV channel announced that it would employ the Bechdel test for rating gender bias in the movies it screens as a service to their viewing audiences. If you have not heard of it, the Bechdel test got its name from American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel who introduced the concept in 1985 in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The rating system, which has been around awhile and greatly discussed in feminist and film critic circles doesn’t portend the quality or feminist nature of the film rather it is simply a measure of the presence of named female characters who talk to each other. The dismal results for passing the test exposes how dramatically the movie industry, in particular, ignores women’s stories. The goal of using the test, according to the Swedes, is “to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens.” To receive an A rating a film must have:

  • Two or more named women present
  • The women talk to each other
  • They discuss something other than men

Sounds simple, but even with this low bar, many notable films don’t pass. The failure to pass even this simple test points out the systemic problem with the industry that continues to make movies by white men, for white men and depressingly few for a more general audience. Modify this test slightly and it can be applied to people of color appearing in movies. Counting the scenes where two or more people of color talk to each other about something other than white people in a film, again measures the momentum, or lack of it in Hollywood.

We have to go beyond just counting the firsts which it turns out, are not an indicator of progress. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. A significant milestone and a film worthy of the award. Yet, it is interesting to note the movie she made—a war film about a bomb disposal team in Iraq—doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. As of 2014, we have yet to see the second female director win the Oscar.

The paucity of substantive female and non-white characters on the big screen, and more importantly, as active participants in the media, on the board of directors of tech companies, and as representatives in the Congress of the United States is a distressing cultural truth. If we are to make exponentially greater gains toward gender parity in these institutions we need to have a clear standard for who is doing the talking.

Photo of WLC 2013 by Carmen Holt
Photo of Alison Bechdel is Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Big Gains for Women & Minorities

Tammy Baldwin (Wis.)American voters rejected big money influence when much of the one billion dollars spent by outside groups proved to be ineffective. The 2012 election, however, reaped huge gains for Democrats, progressive women, minorities, and the environment. Voters in Missouri, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Indiana sent candidates home with an electoral smack down for miscalculating what really matters to women and non-whites, the rising American electorate.

Mazie Hirono (Hawaii)It was a record-breaking year for women with satisfying victories happening in Missouri, where Todd “legitimate rape” Akin was shut down by Claire McCaskill, and in Indiana, where Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party candidate lost his bid for a Senate seat after asserting he would not make an exception for abortions in the case of rape because pregnancies are “something that God intended to happen.”

Credit is given to Washington senator and Democratic senatorial campaign chair, Patty Murray, who kept reproductive rights, Medicare, and jobs front and center. She identified candidates like McCaskill, Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) as a key part of the Democratic Party’s strategy to keep the Senate. The 113th Congress will include the most female Senate members ever (20), with numerous “firsts”. Baldwin, will be the first openly gay Senator, and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) is the first Asian-American woman and first Buddhist to join the Senate.

Tammy Baldwin (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Hear Me Now?

miss representation

miss representation

As a feminist who came of age in the 70s I’ve spent much of my life trying to upend the status quo that simultaneously diminishes the challenges women and girls face and trivializes our actions and accomplishments. I’ve long since tired of the offerings of the corporate media, television, movies, and even my own industry (publishing) that so often miss represents “reality”.  I know I am not the only one who has consciously sought out progressive voices in books, music, film, and art, for ideas and entertainment that reflect on our world with a passionate and creative female voice. Despite the considerable effort made by many to increase the diversity of voices, there is damning evidence that we have seriously lost ground against the juggernaut that is the global consolidation of media corporations. The misrepresentation of women has contributed not only to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence but is a reversal of the gains made last century.

That is the message of a powerful new documentary called, Miss Representation, written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. This film premiered in 2011 at Sundance and aired nationally in October on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, and reports in a dramatic and relentless fashion how awful the present situation really is for girls and women. In a recent post by Marianne Schnall, founder of, she said the film prompted “an inner tsunami of epiphanies and emotions”. I too, felt the essential truth of the message and still hear many of the words from the film’s speakers, including Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Caroline Heldman, Jean Kilbourne, Jennifer Lawless, Nancy Pelosi, Jennifer L. Pozner with the largest impact for me coming from the young and articulate men and women interviewed in the film. As part of the curriculum for media literacy that is flowing from the film’s producers, supporters are encouraged to take the pledge.

“I pledge to use my voice to spread the message of Miss Representation and challenge the media’s limiting portrayal of women and girls”

EWIP will screen this film in San Francisco, in January. (Details to be announced soon.) We know it will be an emotional and insightful experience. This documentary is important and we intend to make a special effort that boys and men will be there to see it too. In the meantime, check out the trailer and take the pledge. Miss Representation Trailer (8:52 min.).