From April 15 to 21, Prevention of Violence Against Women Week, I’m producing a series of daily blog posts to provide strategies and inspiration to resist media representations as a way to prevent violence against girls and women. The campaign is sponsored by Battered Women’s Support Services, and cross-posted on rabble.ca and Gender Focus. This piece was originally posted here.
Today, as I was walking down the street to write at my favorite coffee shop, I received the usual afternoon greetings from my neighbours: “Hey baby!” “Konichiwa!” “Ni hao! “Look at that ass!!”
As all Indigenous women and women of colour know, if sexism wasn’t bad enough, we encounter racism on a daily basis as well—on the street, in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the media. (See the theory of intersectionality on how oppressions like racism, ageism and classism intersect.)
In media, women of colour are often hyper-sexualized, and depicted in racial caricatures: Kung Fu ladies, geishas, sexy Latina sirens, Pocahontas types, etc. That is, if we see ourselves represented in the media at all. According to Journalism.com’s State of the Media report, race and gender issues only accounted for 1% of overall news coverage. And how many women of colour lead actresses can you name in Hollywood, or who have graced the covers of glossy magazines?
The absence of representations of people of colour in the media is as bad as racist representations in the media, because it implies that we simply don’t matter.
I’m graduating from a prestigious journalism school next month, and while I’m grateful for getting top-notch training from the excellent professors, I have to admit that I’m looking forward to getting out of there.
In my classes, when I would speak up against my classmates making fun of black people living in public housing for being fat, debating at what point it is actually wrong to sleep with underage girls, or using racial slurs like “coolie,” I’d get backlash for being a militant feminist who takes things too seriously. And it started to make me feel that I was pretty uncool, which isn’t the case obviously…
At a party last month, I tried to introduce myself to a classmate I didn’t recognize. “I know you already,” she said curtly. “You’re the girl who yells at everyone.” One of my classmates contacted me the other day, asking if I could appear in a funny video he was making. Joseph Pulitzer will come back from the dead and say these old-timey, racist terms. You’d be perfect for someone to act all offended, he said.
If it’s not hard enough for Indigenous women and women of colour to simply talk about racism with our friends and colleagues without being laughed at or ostracized, it’s even more challenging to share our perspectives and experiences in the media.
In news media, not only are racial issues avoided like the plague, there is a serious underrepresentation of people of colour on staff, too. People of colour make up only 12.79 percent of staff in newsrooms, and this has actually declined .47 percent from a year ago, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors
In my previous blog post, I discussed ways to challenge problematic news coverage of progressive causes. But media isn’t only about newspapers, magazines and websites. Media makers include comic book artists, radio hosts, visual artists, musicians, and video game developers, too.
In this post, I highlight filmmaking and zine-making: two ways you can resist racism, sexism, trans-phobia and other oppressions by creating the kind of media you want to see in the world.
I talked to self-taught filmmaker Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, whose award-winning films inspire discussion and action on violence against Indigenous people. A Red Girl’s Reasoning, written and directed by Tailfeathers and produced by Rose Stiffarm, won the Crazy 8s contest earlier this year. Another film, Bloodland, about the environmental and human impact of fracking, has just finished the festival circuit.
And I talked to Syahidah, a member of the collective of Indigenous women, women of color, queer and trans women behind the new zine series, Margins. Margins was created to highlight the stories and experiences of Indigenous women, women of color and gender-queer and trans women and to develop community support among these marginalized populations. Margins was awarded a grant from the Girls’ Action Foundation and their first issue will be available here. Syahidah’s main passion is writing and has written for several feminist websites. Currently, she blogs atwww.lifeandlimabeans.wordpress.com.
Tailfeathers (left) with star of A Red Girl’s Reasoning Jessica Matten (centre) and Rose Stiffarm (right)
Margins zine editor and feminist writer Syahidah
Whatever your medium of choice, Tailfeathers and Syahidah provide these great tips and insights on how to create the kind of media you want to see in the world.
When did you first become interested in creating media and why did you choose films and zines?
Tailfeathers: I started out as an actor and did that professionally for a number of years, but became really jaded with the industry as an actor. It’s obviously very limiting for women in general, and women of color even more so. While I was in the First Nations Studies program at UBC, I learned how to use film equipment and editing software on my own and ended up working at First Nations House of Learning as a videographer.
With my knowledge in film, I thought that I might use it as a form of nonviolent direct action against issues like violence against women and degradation of Indigenous land.
I think film can be a very powerful medium to convey issues of social justice, especially because film is about storytelling. There’s a very strong narrative going on about violence against Aboriginal women, and the story needs to be told, and told to wider audience.
[In a Red Girl’s reasoning, after the justice system fails the victim of a brutal, racially-driven sexual assault, the main character becomes a motorcycle-riding, ass-kicking vigilante who takes on the attackers of other women who've suffered the same fate.]
It was definitely a huge challenge for me to make the film because I’m not an advocate of violence. I don’t think that’s an answer, but clearly, there are major issues going on in this country with violence against Indigenous women, and a Red Girl’s Reasoning is a way to raise awareness and dialogue about it. I thought an action film would attract more of a male audience. The fact is, women, particularly Indigenous women, know about these issues already, and there is no sense of preaching to the choir.
Syahidah: The idea for the zine came from talking to three friends of mine about our negative experiences working within largely white feminist spaces and largely within white and male activist circles. At one point or another, we all felt alienated, unsupported or silenced when we express our views.
Personally, I was writing for mainstream feminist/white women editors who constantly wanted to lump me (unconsciously and with the best of intentions) into the token “woman of color” box. It wasn’t that they were being outwardly racist—it’s just that they were “un-racist” instead of “anti-racist.”
So with the zine, the aim is to highlight the stories and experiences of Indigenous women, women of color and gender-queer and trans women and to help other Indigenous women, women of color and gender-queer and trans women realize that they are not alone.
I think zines are one of the several ways that people can express themselves and create political media that speaks to them and that help buffer social justice movements, even if there are many things that limits zines [including being a written medium and having a limited circulation]. In some ways, the zine is a good tool for reaching out to peers who are already thinking about the same issues as you, which is what we aim to do for our zine –-reach a very specific audience to build community.
An excerpt from Tailfeathers’ film, A Red Girls’ Reasoning;
What do you think of current portrayals of Indigenous women and women of colour you see in the media?
Tailfeathers: First, unless you’re watching APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network), chances are you’re not going to see Indigenous women represented in any way shape or form, and if she is, age-old stereotypes are incredibly pervasive.
The idea of the idyllic Indian princess is very much alive. And then we have the other end of spectrum, which is the squaw. If there are such limited images of Indigenous women in the media, what does the broader public think of us? Do they not realize that we are incredibly diverse?
This is damaging to Native women because we absorb those messages like anyone else out there, and may think that we’re not Native enough because we don’t look like Pocahontas.
Syahidah: Well, to quote Margaret Cho from the film MissRepresentation,“The media treats women like shit!” I agree with this 100%. Queer, gender-queer and trans women are constantly being made fun of in the media and the word “tranny” is casually used in mainstream discourse to derogate trans women…Women of color are typically side-lined as well. Although I will be fair and say that there has been a concerted effort to include women of color characters (especially in sci-fi and fantasy), the representations often circle around one of several tropes.
Black women in sci-fi for example are often seen as “warrior women” (e.g. Mira from Terra Nova, Zoe from Firefly), evil seductresses (e.g. Ashanti in Buffy, Sharon from Battlestar Galactica), exoticized sex objects (e.g. Sierra from Dollhouse, Inara in Firefly) or at best what I like to call “space secretaries” (e.g. Uhura in Star Trek, Tory from Battlestar Galactica).
I would argue that currently, white women have more representation than Indigenous women and women of color, and I really think that has to do with the success of second-wave feminism whose agenda mainly circulated around white, middle-class women.
What advice do you have for making films?
Tailfeathers: I guess just to recognize that film is about storytelling. Really think about the kinds of stories you want to tell. I think it’s imperative that people support women of colour who tell their own stories in film. There are a lot of amazing filmmakers that are women of colour, but their work is mostly being screened at festivals and not really getting mainstream play.
What advice do you have for people to start their own zines?
Syahidah: Make sure you get a great community of support around you. And be prepared to work hard! Margins has been immensely lucky – from the get-go, people around us have been so supportive of our idea including Vancouver Status of Women, WAM! Vancouver and Allies UBC (a student resource group), who have also been amazing in terms of both financial and physical/emotional support.
Hard work comes with the territory—we’ve faced some challenges especially in terms of trying to schedule meeting times and trying to put the zine together as a collective. I should also add that as a collective, we are not paid for our work for the zine. It’s hard work and it can be frustrating but at the end of the day, we remind ourselves that the harder the work is, the more important it is.
Funding available and support for feminist media projects available through: Girls Action Foundation
Tutorials on filmmaking, photography website design, etc. available at: Lynda.com(some are free without subscription)
Free movie editing software
Support for learning about radio production at WINGS (Women’s International News Gathering Service)