administration · first-name managerialism · ideas for change

Meeting minutes

I am on an unceasing quest to pare the inefficiencies from my work day. I’ve been thinking about what 30 minutes means in concrete terms. I’ve been cursing the chaos email brings into my life. I’ve been thinking about how the discipline and sheer word count required for blogging makes me a leaner, meaner writing machine.

Now I’m thinking about meetings, and minutes.

Last week, I turned to the cursed email to spend five minutes crafting a meeting call sent to a representative from every department on campus. That five minutes, I began to marvel, was generating a minimum of 75 potential hours of work. If you consider that I was asking 50 people to give me 90 minutes of their time? If they all come, that’s nearly two full weeks of full time work. It’s happening concurrently, but it’s still 75 hours of faculty member labour. Never mind the time spent by any of those people dealing with the email, and the calendaring, or whatever. And never mind the administrative support I get to book the room, get some coffee and donuts, manage the RSVP list, send out reminder emails.

This gave me pause. I’ve been to a lot of giant meetings, many quite poorly run and diffuse, and thought, “Oh well, that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” But multiply that hour by all the attendees and it’s a pretty significant work-time investment! And yet, the biggest meetings are the ones that usually seem the least useful, right?

I’m heading a different committee–this one has three of us on it, and we recently met for an hour and a half. Holy smokes we got a lot covered! But one thing we did settle on was that between us we would conduct individual interviews with every faculty member in the department. Again, without really factoring in all the emails and cat herding this involves, for a twenty minute interview with about twenty people, with two faculty members per meeting, that’s … 800 minutes, or about 13 hours of people time. I’ve done five interviews already, and they’ve all been really useful. So my second observation is that smaller meetings tend to get more done.

In general, then, the big meetings use up acres and acres of faculty time, and generally don’t get much done (in my experience) while the smaller meetings, even if labour intensive, are far less so, and often much more useful.

So when I’m requesting meetings, in future, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going remember the above law. Let’s call it Morrison’s Law of Meetings. Second, I’m going to calculate the actual number of hours of work my meeting generates for others, and to try to be mindful of making good use of that time.

There are other ways to calculate the value of a meeting: like, if I’m thinking about my time, I might prefer to meet with 50 people at once to get across what I want to convey. But that’s more a lecture, actually than a meeting. If I think about meetings as interactive activities where each participant has something valuable to contribute, this particular calculus is less compelling than the one I describe above.

I don’t really like meetings. Who does? But I think we can make them more useful and less wasteful by really thinking hard about what we’re trying to accomplish, and what the real cost is. Now that I’m in a position that puts me in charge of creating meetings that others are supposed to attend, I need to really keep that in mind.

faster feminism · feminist win

I Need Feminism Because…

This past week something wonderful happened at McGill University; suddenly, everyone was talking about feminism. And they were saying good things!

A group of students started a  “Who Needs Feminism” tumblr page. Members of the McGill community submit photographs of themselves holding up pieces of paper that say “I need feminism because… [finish sentence].”

The “Who Needs Feminism” campaign was started by a group of sixteen Duke University students in a Women’s Studies class. The campaign is designed to combat the negative connotations associated with the word “feminism” and to spark a discussion about why we all need it through asking people to define it for themselves.

So, why do I need feminism?

Why do you need feminism?

balance · graduation · job market

Home and Away

Hi everyone! I’m Melissa Dalgleish, and I’m so happy to be writing for Hook & Eye. 

I recently returned from a short trip to upstate New York and New York City, partly for the wedding of two friends also in my PhD program, partly to visit a former PhD student who decided that teaching high school in the big city was more his style. The pastoral setting of the wedding was absolutely gorgeous, NYC was its usual dynamic self, and I enjoyed myself immensely in both places. But as soon as I walked in the door of my house in downtown Toronto, shut it behind me, and kicked off my shoes, I felt an immediate sense of relief. I was home.

I’ve been really lucky in the past to have academia and the place I wanted to call home line up. I grew up around the corner from one of the best universities in the country, and so I got to save a bunch of money living with my parents and still getting a great education. When it came time to do my MA, it just so happened that the school where my then-partner was doing his law degree and the school where one of the experts in my field taught were the same place. And I was lucky enough to get into a PhD program that suits me down to the ground in the region where all of my friends and family live. But I know that this luck isn’t going to last. It’s five years later, and what I’ll do when that luck runs out is something I feel as though I have to start thinking about. Going on the market forces some pretty big decisions about our priorities.

Take the friends who got married in New York. One is Canadian, the other American. They are both aspiring academics, both in the same field. And they have had to decide, long before going on the market, that they will be living in the States. There are more jobs, and thus more chances at both of them getting a job in roughly the same place. Luckily, my Canadian friend is an Americanist and so moving to the States is an option for them. But what if he doesn’t want to leave Canada and everything he’s built here? For the sake of an academic job—or the chance at one—for both himself and his wife, he’s made the choice to move anyway.

Or take the friend who is a high school teacher in New York, formerly a PhD student. He was studying at a small coastal university, and the location just wasn’t for him. He wanted, he told me, to live in a city he could be proud of, to live somewhere that suited his need for noise and people and things to do. That was more important to him than remaining an academic, and I sense that some people have been shocked and disappointed by his decision. We’re told, so often, that these desires aren’t valid—that academe is a vocation, that the tenure-track academic job is the Holy Grail, more important than being near our friends or our families, far more important than our hard-won knowledge about what kinds of places suit us and our lives. The comments on Amanda Lord’s recent article in the Chronicle repeated this refrain again and again. In her response to Lord’s article, Karen Kelsky quotes Bill Pannapaker’s summary of the comments: “If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.” But why?

I don’t have to make any decisions yet. I’m over a year from going on the market, and things might look better by then. I’m also lucky that it’s still just the two of us–as Liza noted in her recent post, location is an especially fraught decision for academic parents, since “University careers are, more than most, uprooting. You are fortunate if you have an academic job and extended family in the same town.” If you don’t, you can’t rely on a network of extended family to assist with childcare, or just to be there for support. So what do I choose? I could pick the city where I have a house, a family, friends I’ve known since childhood. Toronto is still, despite having lived lots of other places, the spot that suits me best—but it is also a place that is incredibly unlikely to hold an academic job for me. Or do I choose academe over Toronto, and try my luck somewhere else, somewhere that I might hate, somewhere that is far from my long-established support network? Neither of these choices is an easy one, and I’m not looking forward to having to pick.  

All of this is to say that academics have to make hard choices about where they will end up. With the job market as it is, the choice between my city and an academic job might not exist for me—Toronto might win by default—but it may. I can’t imagine a solution to the problems of academia that would let more of us have both—the job we want in the place that works for us. But I can imagine a version of academe that doesn’t judge people who prioritize location—shorthand for homes, families, spouses, friends, all of the connections we make with the places we love—over remaining an academic. What about you? Have you had to make any hard choices about where you’ll live for the sake of a job? Or given up a job that wasn’t somewhere you wanted to live? 

backlash · media

When pop culture research is unpopular

I really enjoyed reading Aimée Morrison’s Wednesday post on the importance of participating in public discussions of our work. I think many of us shy away from this kind of engagement because our graduate programmes do not offer much in the way of media training, and so the world of the mainstream media (despite being a regular object of study for some of us) also remains an intimidating place.

When I decided to join the Hook and Eye team, I knew that the first blog post I wanted to write would be about my own (failed) attempt to disseminate my research in the mainstream media. While at congress in Waterloo this past spring, a paper that I presented at the Canadian Women’s Studies Association discussing gender inequality in the Canadian comedy industry was picked up by the National Post to be featured as part of their “Oh the Humanities” series. I was genuinely excited about this opportunity, and really enjoyed speaking to the reporter about my work. The day that the story was published, my excitement very quickly turned to dread and trauma as violently negative reactions to my scholarship began filling the comments sections of the article. Not only had the story been generally poorly received, but actual female stand-up comedians – the subjects of my research – were chiming in to angrily explain how completely, utterly offensive were all of my claims. It was a moment of extreme academic vulnerability, in which I had to reckon with the terrifying possibility that I had gotten it all wrong.

Through much reflection, and a major appeal for support from my academic network, I came to the decision that I had not been wrong. The claims that I made about the gendered nature of humour, specifically the way that we are socialized to experience humour as gendered, and the long term effects that this has on the numbers and types of female comedians currently working in the industry were well reasoned, supported with field observations, and align with similar research findings about humour and gender in other disciplines and contexts.

What I had gotten wrong, was my articulation of this research in a non-academic context. It is difficult to explain theories of social construction, and having not done it justice, the potential for massive misinterpretation of my work as being a reinforcement of gender division (rather than a critique of it) was fully realized. My research was taken up as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. My work was hated by the very research subjects that I cared about, and whose continued success I wanted to ensure by better understanding the conditions of the reception of their humour.

I wanted to write about this experience because it reinforced for me one of the most important aspects of feminist scholarship: sometimes our research has to be unpopular. As a popular culture scholar, I had become accustomed to advice from my peers which claimed that mine was a fortunate area of study because it has a mass audience. I would be more likely to get media attention and, since everyone is familiar with my subject, the “public” would be more likely to take an interest in it. This gave me a false sense of security. I somehow believed that my research would be easily explained, that my critiques of the inequalities that I had observed would be accepted, and that my research would be considered valuable. I was not expecting such a wholesale rejection.

As feminist scholars, however, we should all be accustomed to our research findings being, at times, resisted and rejected. This is a consequence of doing political work, but it is absolutely no reason to stop pushing for its dissemination. At a time when academics are increasingly being pressured to create industry partnerships in order to bolster the practical applications of their scholarship, it is difficult to maintain an unpopular research agenda. As feminist scholars, we need to continue to make bold claims, to ask difficult questions, and to be willing to face criticisms on the road to realizing the social change that we are all pushing for.

Although I consider my first foray into the role of “expert” to have been an unmitigated failure, I absolutely agree with Aimée, we need more female scholars offering their expertise in the media. This isn’t always easy, but it is definitely always worthwhile.

advice · change · faster feminism · outreach

Please say yes when they call: women in the media

First a pitch and then a bootstrap. People, this is serious. There are not enough lady academics participating in the public conversation that happens in the news media. There are not enough lady academics on expert panels on current events shows. There are not enough female experts giving context on news stories. There are not enough smart women setting the agenda on issues through venues like the op-ed pages of newspapers.
————–

Pitch

On TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, it’s still 80% men appearing a pundits and experts, and 20% women.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this including the usual old boys’ network, which I guess we continue to counter by putting together some binders full of women. But one big reason, that I keep hearing both from professionals working in the media and from academics seeking to increase women’s participation in same is this: the women get asked to participate, and they keep saying no.

Here are some reasons:

  • I need more time to prepare notes and research if I want to do a good job.
  • You want an expert in ABC(a), but I actually research ABC(b).
  • Oh, I couldn’t possibly offer an opinion: my research is objective.
80% men. Some of them are great men, but a diversity of opinion and expertise is always better than the same three 50 year old white guys. Men do not say things like “I’m not well-prepared enough” and they don’t say “My subfield is a hair’s breadth removed from the one you want” and they don’t say “I will let the data in that peer-reviewed article hidden behind a paywall and linguistically and pragmatically accessible to only 42 people speak for itself while I go home and revel in my imposter syndrome.”
Sometimes, yes, they mansplain and this kind of overconfidence and arrogance is to be avoided. But we’re never going to be more than 20% visible in public discourse unless we start to say yes to media calls.
For the love of all that’s good and feminist, PLEASE SAY YES WHEN THEY CALL YOU.
It’s not that hard. Here’s the bootstrap part.
—————-
Saying Yes
Here’s how it happens. You get an email or a phone call from a reporter or a producer or an intern working in radio or television or print. They ask you if you can give context or background on an issue, or to explain something, or to be part of a panel just generally discussing an issue. They give you a timeframe, which varies from “the camera truck is on the road now, let us know where we can meet you,” to “I’d like to discuss this briefly with you before the end of the morning tomorrow,” to “we’re doing a show on this early next week and would like you to appear.” They might want to engage with you over the telephone, over email, in a recording studio, on a location “stand up”, or in a television studio.
Here’s what you do. If the timeframe is ridiculously fast (“in the next hour”) Google what they’re asking you about, get the gist and ask yourself: “would I have something vaguely sensible to say about this to an undergrad who doesn’t know about this topic?” If the answer is yes, you are qualified to appear. Remember the bar is “undergrad who doesn’t know about the topic” and not “superstar researcher in the field.” If the timeframe is a little more relaxed, actually, the same standard applies.
Now you call back. Say yes. 
Last week, the host of a local current affairs television show emailed me to ask if I would appear for about 16 minutes on a show devoted to bullying and to Amanda Todd. I said yes. Am I an expert in teen suicide? No. Am I an expert in high school? No. Am I an expert on bullying? No. But she had already got experts on those topics and wanted to talk to me about the social media elements. That, I’m an expert in.
So of course I said yes. And it was great. And the host was even happy to take a goofy pic with me so I could convince you all that doing TV is really not scary, and that everyone is really nice:
It’s me! And Hayley Zimak of Rogers Talk Local Waterloo Region!
Preparing
Sometimes, all you have is that couple of minutes of Googling before you have to do your thing. Usually all they want for print or radio or TV is about two minutes of contact of which they will only use about 20 seconds, one soundbite, or one sentence. This is why you don’t need three weeks to do a literature review.
For the talk show, I had about five days notice. The host sent me her general topics and I sent her back a link to my post from last week. She amended her questions and we decided to zero in on the gendered issues.
Generally, I prepare like this: I surf the internet for what’s happening (because my field is new media studies, and people are asking me about what’s happening on the internet.) I read media coverage of the same issues. I already have my scholarly knowledge from the research and teaching that I do, but sometimes I look up some reports or articles. That’s only for long interviews, though, like when I was on TV last year talking about Canadian internet privacy law. I was on for 20 minutes, and my notes looked like this:
Google, google, think, think, scribble, scribble, DONE.
That’s it. Not hard. Please note that you shouldn’t bring your notes on camera with you if you’re doing TV, or into the studio if you’re doing radio, because it sounds / looks really stilted and unnatural.

Be on TV!

People can see you when you’re on TV. There are some general guidelines to make you more successful in this regard.

  • No skinny stripes on your shirt (mostly people only see your top half, sometimes only to your shoulders)
  • You need to wear a lot of makeup on standard definition television. Like crazy amounts, or you’ll look like a squinty eyed puffball.
Here’s a picture of me in my “TV face” we took at home:
“Homer! I think you left the makeup gun set to ‘whore’!”
I know, right? Omigod. But on TV it looks like this:
“It’s not the Internet, actually, it’s sexism that’s the problem”
Also good to know when you’re on TV:
  • Try not to look at the camera
  • Be animated–it’s okay to smile or vary your facial expression to show your own interest in the topic
  • Remember you’re talking to the equivalent of curious undergrads: it’s not necessary to footnote your commentary
  • It’s just a bunch of people sitting at a breakfast bar, chatting.
“Please make sure your phones are turned off while we tape!”
—————-
The Upshot
Can I just say how extremely empowering this most recent talk show appearance was? After complaining so bitterly about misdirected media coverage of this case, I GOT TO BECOME THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF THIS CASE?

For me, this is pure knowledge mobilization: I research identity online, and it’s in the news, and therefore, I need to be on the news. But there are a lot of other reasons someone might call you, and for the most part, it’s nowhere near as hard or as much work or as scary as you think it’s going to be.
And until you start saying yes, it’s still going to be 80% men and 20% women leading the public conversation on everything from food to new media to politics to driving. Everything.
Please, take that PhD into the world with you. Hayley is very friendly, and I’ve got more makeup tips for you. Please, say yes when they call.

graduation · learning · voice · writing

Binding the Bits: Developing your Voice in Academia

Hello everyone! My name is Jessica Kuepfer and I am both thrilled and honoured to join Hook & Eye as a contributor. 
As I was preparing for this post, I was not only thinking about those I was writing for, but also the voice in which I would frame my message. When Hook & Eye began asking for different voices to join their regular blogging team, I felt I qualified as different, but was unsure of how I would bind all the bits together.
I was born and raised Conservative Mennonite so a foray into the academic world wasn’t the first thing that many in my traditional community saw for me.  As a child, being from a tradition that values simplicity and manual labour, I saw the academic woman as a foreign and interesting being. This weekend, I walked across the university stage for my two minutes of fame to accept my degree with my proud parents snapping photos and video taping my every movement.  It was a celebration of having successfully pieced together the traditional voices of my childhood with a fresh, strong academic voice. 
Contributing to Hook & Eye is much like holding a mirror to the sum total of my academic career thus far – an equal mix of uncertainty and optimism. My undergrad has been chocked full of strong female professors whom I have held up as role models, tentatively imitating their voices until I found a way to incorporate them into my own.  I am now speaking from that in-between place where I have four years down of academia and who knows how many to go, still gripped with the same uncertainty and optimism. 
I am also here to listen to your voices and to learn from your experiences that are bound to be just as varied and pieced together as mine. 
So let’s begin, shall we? 
What steps did you take to develop your voice as a writer and female leader in the academic world?  

Uncategorized

#nofilter

Lately, my fuse is a little bit on the short side. Maybe its the season (the grading is rolling in, I have my first cold, my students are getting stressed out, I have a budget meeting with the Dean). Then again, maybe it is something else. I find myself less able to hold my tongue or sugar-coat statements. Indeed, I find that most of the time I am ready to drop my gloves and fight for every inch of ideological space I am trying to inhabit in the institution and in my life. Got a problem with me? I’m going to set you straight. Make some sort of thinly-veiled sexist comment? I’m going to call you out on it. Acting like a bully? Holy cats, watch out. It is as though some manners-dam has been breached and I am incapable of letting foolishness go uncommented-upon. Forget the #nofilter apps on Instagram, I’ve got no filter when I speak!

Where is this coming from?

When I was a child my parents taught me never to interrupt, to wait until it was my turn to speak, and when I was speaking, they encouraged me to make my points clearly and succinctly and then let the other person respond. This training worked wonderfully well … at home, where my parents valued what I had to say as much as what the other adults in the room were discussing. In high school I attended cotillion, which is etiquette training class. It was a mix of ridiculous social etiquette lessons and some really valuable lessons. I know how to foxtrot, how to waltz, and how to get out of a car wearing heels and a short skirt. I also learned which fork to use at a formal dinner table, and, additionally, I learned how to facilitate conversation, and how to listen. There was a lot of emphasis placed on being a good listener. None of these things — having respect for others, being a good listener, recognizing and respecting rules — is inherently bad, unless of course there is a breach of conduct by another party. I mean seriously, if someone is being disrespectful there is a time, place, and way to address it. (Did I mention cotillion also taught me the Southern art of the cutting remark? To be wielded with caution.)

Here’s the thing: I am tired of the same kind of issues Margrit has written about here, Aimée has written about here, and I have written about here, here, and here. In short, I’m tired of how difficult the job market continues to be, how prevalent sexism continues to be, and how quietism seems to be the rule of the day. All that tiredness seems to be resulting in the loss of my filter.

#nofilter verbal sparring! Ka-pow! No foolishness allowed!

Suffice to say, I haven’t always been so feisty, and I am not so sure it is wise for my career. But let me tell you, even if I wanted to tone it down, I’m not so sure I could! So the key becomes figuring out how to speak frankly while walking that fine line between respecting others and refusing to let lazy thinking go unaddressed. For me, right now, the filterless approach is working. For the future, I think I’ll return to Heather’s post on Tina Fey.

Uncategorized

Taking a Mental Health Day

I wasn’t going to write a blog post today, because I was going to take a mental health day. You know, in-between teaching two classes, prepping others for next week, starting to mark the stack of eighty essays, picking kids up from daycare, arranging for Hallowe’en costumes for them, etc. etc. etc. But then I though the topic might be a good one to tackle (plus, I felt guilty for not writing a blog post on my allotted day).

It’s the middle of the first academic term of the year, and things are probably never going to be busier or crazier than now. So, how does one take care of one’s mental health with all these tasks piling up on one’s metaphorical desk? How do you take care of yourself, so you can take care of your work, your family, your friends, your community, too?

My short answer is “I don’t know anymore.”During grad school, I used to be very good at it: I ran regularly, I took time off when I felt like I needed it, and met friends for coffee or lunch (what seems like) all the time. Of course, I also either didn’t teach at all or taught only one course, had only one kid, and was completely in charge of my schedule. Now, however, one PhD and one more kid later, I am at a loss when it comes to mental-health time. I run very irregularly, don’t have time for yoga at the studio, and am not studious enough to do it on my own (all those downloaded apps notwithstanding), and just plainly can’t find enough hours in a day. Add to it a conference (a fantastic one, too) over the weekend, and a stomach flu yesterday, and my entire schedule is running behind by two weeks! And did I mention the eighty papers? (Full-time sessionals, I apologize, but it’s my first time teaching two courses, and eighty seems like a lot to me.)

Add to that the most time- and energy-consuming activity of all: being on this difficult job market. I am a very organized person, I swear. A typical virgo. I make lists, and full use of iCal, and Excel sheets, and everything short of programming software myself. But I just cannot seem to keep track of the job apps process, because it seems every school wants something different. I am perpetually behind there, and fall behind in other areas because of the anxiety of missing a deadline to apply for what might be the one and only.

So, I was going to take a mental health day today, in-between the end of classes and having to pick the kids up, but I discovered another deadline next week. Yes. So, do me a favour, and take one for me, so I relax vicariously, would you?

academy · balance · equity · ideas for change

Family affairs

It’s been a crazy two weeks. Just before Thanksgiving, I went down to a conference in Denver, Colorado with my partner and our 19-month old son and then the following Friday the three of us took a group of graduate students and faculty to Banff National Park for a 3-day environmental history field trip. I know that might not sound so bad, but factoring in a toddler’s eating, napping, sleeping, and need-to-be-entertained-by-something-other-than-a-lecture-on-history schedule makes what is otherwise a busy two weeks into a crazy two weeks. My main point though is not to say that we survived, but that both of these work trips were family affairs.

I know I’m lucky that this is even possible. My son is young enough that he’s still a free flight. I have a partner to share childcare and who is also an academic in a similar-enough field that we can attend the same conferences and collaborate in this fashion. We also work in a system that is less hostile to parenting than some.

That said, this good fortune reflects more my personal circumstances than structural advantages. The Canadian academic system is hardly a paradise for parents with young children. University jobs are not M-F, 9-5, but I’m not aware of any university with childcare provisions that acknowledge this reality. The majority of conferences I attend have no childcare on offer, which is a particular blindspot. University careers are, more than most, uprooting. You are fortunate if you have an academic job and extended family in the same town. In my case, our grandparents, aunts, and uncles are all hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away, so we can’t leave our son behind when we go to a conference. But it is virtually impossible to make such arrangements in an unfamiliar city (I’ve tried) and cost prohibitive to bring childcare along for the ride as well.

This is more than a plea for better childcare at conferences, however. It is also a question: might there be good reasons to not only accommodate but also to embrace family relationships as part of universities? And I don’t just mean children here, but families – partners, parents, siblings. 

This assumes, of course, that academia does not already embrace families. Spousal hires are the exception that proves the rule: while they aim to accommodate academic families, they are hard to come by and often perceived in a profoundly negative fashion. Spousal hires are also no use if your partner is not an academic. The academy cherishes the individual. The model humanities scholar is an isolated individual, deep in thought, surrounded by books (do a google image search for “Historian at work”). The model academy is predicated upon gatherings of single people engaged in research and teaching, supported and sustained by families who are not part of that work but who perhaps attend the occasional department party. Recognising this helps us to understand why so many family-unfriendly activities (long-distance conference travel and intensive, months-long field or archival research and writing projects) are so core to academic success.

But our families humanize us and by extension, acknowledging them can humanize our relationships with students and colleagues, acting as a counterbalance to an increasingly corporate and bureaucratic culture. By making explicit the commitments that we have to our loved ones and that can potentially disrupt our work lives, it becomes more possible to accommodate such disruptions so that they are, in fact, less disruptive. If people know that you have a sick parent or partner, they might be more able to assist before you become so overtaxed that you just have to bail on your commitments. Moreover, when family commitments are explicit then colleagues, students, and administrators are less likely to assume that your domestic responsibilities are taken care of by someone else. We are each then surrounded by a range of functional models combining work and family. Lastly, embracing family relationships within universities, however hokey it might sound, offers an opportunity for academia to be a place where social alternatives are imagined and explored, not just through research, but in our daily practice.
heartbreak · mental health · popular culture · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

Amanda Todd: the problem is sexism, not the internet

Amanda Todd’s recent presumed suicide made me very sad, and then made me very angry.

My heart goes out to her family, and to those who cared for her. What a terrible loss. That’s the sad part. I was myself bullied for years and years and years, and it was awful. And that was in the 1980s, so at least the vicious commentary was all in pink pen on ruled paper pulled from notepads. Every story like Amanda’s brings me back to what it feels like to be so gleefully excluded, to have random acts of cruelty visited upon you, just so that the rest of the group can bond over your expulsion from it. So sad.

The angry part is just getting angrier, every time I read about how Amanda was bullied, about why she was bullied, and about the terrible terrible paradoxes that being a girl has always entailed, only now much more publicly. I am angry that we are calling this “bullying” like it’s not very specifically gendered. And how we are blaming the internet, rather than endemic sexism. It is a re-victimization to deny what is really going on here.

To review. When she was 12, Amanda and a friend were goofing around a webcam chat, having a flattering interaction with a stranger. She flashed her breasts. Screenshots, it transpires, were made. At 14 she found herself confronted again by these images, now being used to try to extort further webcam performances. She refused, and the pictures went public. Vicious public shaming and bullying, online and off, ensued.

What happened to Amanda is an amplifed version of what happens to all women who were once girls: we suddenly found ourselves with new bodies, and a social system that tells us, at one and the same time, to manifest an increasingly normative hypersexualized self-presentation (to be popular, to fit in, to have friends) and to viciously slap down as sluts any other girl who went just a shade too far in this hypersexualized self-presentation (again, in order to be popular, to fit in, to have friends). Dating introduced further complications: be sexy, but not necessarily sexual; put out, but not too enthusiastically. The range of acceptable teenage girl behaviours and self-presentations is very, very, very narrow. The band widens a bit for those who are conventionally pretty, if they also happen to have good self-confidence, and a higher than average starting social or economic position. Kim Kardashian can made a sex tape and become a global brand icon; Amanda Todd can flash her nascent boobs for one person over a webcam and be driven to suicide.

What if we lived in a world where 12 year olds didn’t feel like they had to flash their breasts at men to make friends? Or, perhaps more radically, what if we lived in a world where when people wanted to flash their breasts at some point, the later circulation of these images wasn’t so incredibly shameful as to bring down a virtual lynch mob onto this girl?

[Let’s go further: what about a world where boys didn’t learn about adult sexuality from a pervasive porn culture, or where such a large part of their own social standing didn’t come from treating girls as some kind of social currency to acquire and just as rapidly spend?]

The internet is a gossip and picture machine. No law in the world is ever likely to curb the wildfire of teen gossip, stop the screen shots or the camera phone snaps from zipping around a school before the bell finishes ringing. What we can change are our social relations. Maybe we can stop being ashamed of our bodies and our sexuality. Maybe we can stop letting these be manipulated to our detriment by parties who would exploit or harm us to exert power over us.

Adolescence is awful. It’s a time of separation from our childhood and the various kinds of security it offered us. We are meant to rethink who we are, to take social risks, to experiment with identity at that time. This shouldn’t kill us. It shouldn’t, either, lead us to become monsters in the name of social standing either: so terrified of not fitting in ourselves, even those of us who were bullied are quick to turn on anyone a little weaker, a little more precarious, than ourselves, just to turn that heat away, to feel like we belong even momentarily. And of course puberty is a misery as well, perhaps particularly for girls, who, it seems to me, have absolutely no way of getting through the physical and emotional changes without feeling like they have in some very significant way failed very significantly: too hairy, thighs too squishy, desires too strong, boobs to big or too small or too visible or too hidden. Too tall or too short. Too ‘boyish’ or too ‘womanly’.

Adolescence plus puberty is bad. Adolescence plus puberty multiplied by an unforgetting, unforgiving internet? Multiplies the capacity for harm.

But the internet isn’t really the problem. “Bullying” isn’t really the problem. The problem is systemic, pervasive, all-encompassing sexism, and the stifling of female power, the rigid policing of female identity at the time when this identity is barely nascent, and its bearer so very vulnerable.

If we all learned that lesson, about the impossibility of being female, we might become kinder. We might push out the boundaries a little further, to allow the Amanda Todds of the world (among whom I would place my own teenage self) a little breathing room, a little kindness, to become who they are, without shame, without coercion, without violence.

With love.