Where Are All the Young Feminists? Meet the Girls of Generation Now
This piece is the first of a yearlong series of profiles highlighting the leadership and vision of girl activists and cultural catalysts. Each month, we'll meet girls and young women who are having a major impact on local, national, and global policy, shaping public conversation, transforming their communities, and advancing the welfare of women and girls worldwide.
Over the years, I've often thought about how many marginalized girls could be educated, how many abortions could be funded, and how many new media commentators could be trained if I had a dollar for every disparaging and misguided complaint I've heard about millennials' supposed apathy.
As a feminist media activist and organizer who started my career working with other young people to speak truth to power, I've seen countless youth on the frontlines of many of the most critical and hard-fought movements of my lifetime. Girls are collectively raising their voices about issues like students' rights, street harassment, gender violence, bullying, access to over-the-counter emergency contraception , and the sexualization of girls in the media.
While the "selfie" generation may be using different tactics and tools to incite change, their contributions are real, innovative, often collaborative, and immortalized on film, video, and blogs like never before. The digital era has paved the way for a new generation of movement builders to transcend borders and engage about pop culture, media, politics, and strategy in a more democratized space without asking for permission to take a stand.
Slut: The Play
In the midst of media-perpetuated victim-blaming surrounding the highly publicized sexual assaults and cyberbullying young women have suffered from Maryville to Steubenville, a group of New York City teens are using theatre to raise awareness and take a stand against slut-shaming in schools. Slut: The Play's narrative about a teen girl being put on trial in the court of her community's opinion after being raped is timely and unfortunately commonplace.
The play, which debuted at the New York Fringe Festival in August, features Joey (played by Winnifred Bonjean Alpart), who belongs to a high school dance troupe that she and her friends call "The Slut Squad" in an attempt to express their sexuality on their own terms. After partying with some guy friends, Joey is restrained and raped in the back of a taxicab by three boys. When the news gets out, Joey is discredited by classmates and parents because of her "Slut Squad" affiliation, her drinking, and the fact that her perpetrators were her acquaintances. Joey, not her attackers, becomes the target of harassment, blame, and gossip.
The all-girl cast illuminates the roles peer pressure and judgment from authority figures play in reinforcing double standards about sexual expression, drinking, and teenage hook-up culture. Serving as the impetus for the 100-member StopSlut Girl Coalition and corresponding StopSlut Conference at the New School in October, the play showcases themes from real-life stories witnessed and shared by the girls who helped create it.
With recent slut-shaming coverage of Miley Cyrus's MTV awards attire, and degrading presumptions aboutRihanna's and Taylor Swift's sex lives, the media both reinforce the sexualization of young women and regulate the degree to which their sexual expression is acceptable. In this cultural climate, it's no surprise that countless girls are intimidated into silence, isolation, or even participating in the shaming and bullying of others to fit in, to avoid infecting their reputations and rendering themselves pariahs.
After I watched Slut: The Play at the recent StopSlut conference hosted by The Arts Effect NYC, The Feminist Press, and Equality Now, I interviewed three teen actors and StopSlut Girl Coalition members,Samia Najimy Finnerty, Amari Rose Leigh, and Winnifred Bonjean Alpart. We discussed the movement to call for healthier attitudes about women's sexuality and to end the harassment, shaming, and blaming culture they call "slutting."
Q: How did you get involved in the StopSlut Coalition and Slut: The Play?
Winnifred: I've been a part of the The Arts Effect NYC All-Girls Theater Company since I was about 10 years old, and this is our latest production. The play started in a really collaborative way, and I, along with a bunch of other girls, have been involved from the very beginning. When we were coming together during discussions or debates about issues that mattered to us, the word "slut" was just way too prominent. The StopSlut Coalition and Slut: The Play came out of our conversations about what girls experience. I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of it, so I could implement strategies in my school and get other girls involved.
Q: When you were coming up with ideas for the play, what were the most important ideas about the realities of young women's lives?
Samia: We all had one common theme we were bringing in-slut-shaming and hook-up culture and the stigma around girls and their sexuality. We all had different stories and ideas about it.
Q: Did your concept about the meaning of the world "slut" change over time?
Amari: Slut: The Play made me super-conscious about when anyone uses the word. Now, I feel so strongly against this word. No one can use it around me anymore. We need to come together. When we use the word against ourselves, it makes it look like it is O.K. for other people to call us that.
Q: How did you decide on the language you used, and how did it feel to know parents were in the audience?
Samia: Katie Cappiello, our artistic director, wrote the script based on what she's seen from teenage girls and who she knows us to be. It was important to be as real and as honest as possible to do the stories [about girls experiencing harassment, shaming, blaming and assault] justice. It is uncomfortable to talk about these issues and say certain things in front of parents, but it is also enlightening for them in raising us.
Q: Do you see any differences in how "slutting" occurs and how women are affected by its effects based on their race, class, or gender identity?
Amari: I haven't experienced being called a slut, but there are stereotypes about every race. I remember talking to someone who saw the show who said, "Wouldn't it be different if the girl in the show who was raped was a girl of color, and not a white and privileged girl?" I think when it comes to victim-blaming and the woman is not white, it is really different. It's not just a race thing, it is also class thing. I think about how much harder the trial scene in the show would be if it was a girl of color in the same position.
Q: What has been the most surprising reaction to the play that you've received, and who was it from?
Winnifred: When we first started to promote the play, I was a little wary of putting myself out there with a show which was provocatively called "Slut." But the really amazing thing was that as soon as I became more open about the play, girls at my school started approaching me about the show, and messaging me about wanting to be involved in any way possible, and I just realized how this is an issue that really touches everybody, especially young girls.
Q: Let's follow up on that. You have little sisters. How did you explain to them what the play is about and why its message is important?
Winnifred: I want my involvement in the play and the role to make them feel an alliance with other girls. I hope they will know that not a single person deserves to be treated the way my character, Joey, was.
Q: Tell me about your biggest learning moment during your involvement in the play?
Samia: I have a lot of guy friends who were a little standoffish when I used to talk about slut-shaming, and would kind of agree with me because they had to. After seeing the play, they have started to get involved in their communities and start petitions. For example, one of my guy friends is calling for the meaning of consent to be taught in New York public schools. There's a stereotype that "boys will be boys," but what I've learned is that you really need to talk with them, and show them…that really opens their eyes.
Q: What is your biggest hope for the world?
Amari: I hope to start a conversation. People shy away from this topic because it is uncomfortable and difficult. Just because we ignore it, it doesn't go away. Boys are equally a part of the problem. We need to be having these conversations together.
I started a club, "Feminist Future," in high school, and it is so important to hear the input of the boy members. For progress, we've got to get everyone on board. Hopefully when people see the show they can connect and see how it affects everyone.
Now, it is somewhat even harder than it was for our moms. There's a new element-social media. Girls can be assaulted and harassed, and then it can be spread on social media and Twitter. There are so many things out there trying to tear us down, so we need to prove them wrong, come together, fight it, and right it.
For more information on the StopSlut movement: http://sluttheplay.com/stopslut-challenge/
More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Girls
More articles by Tag: Sexual harassment