All the Mornings After

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

After the profound depression and helplessness I felt on Friday, I woke up on Saturday energized and hopeful. As I got my coffee and walked to the train for the Women’s March in Boston, I saw a multitude of pink pussy hats, rolled up signs, discreet pins. I felt like the whole city was part of something, that my people were all around me. I was delighted rather than upset by the many trains that passed my station, completely full, and grateful when the MBTA opened a fresh train on the maintenance track to handle the overflow. I chatted with an eight-year-old Girl Scout going to her first march, and a seasoned veteran of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements.

When I got to the Boston Common, it was mobbed, but it was an orderly mob. While people packed every inch of grass, there was a real effort to ensure that the paths through the park remained clear for people trying to find friends or access the port-a-potties. I snapped pictures of the many creative signs and was delighted to hold mine up as a requested backdrop for a group of protestors taking a selfie together. I couldn’t find any of the friends I had hoped to meet up with—cell service was blacked out—but I decided to focus on being present. My heart soared every time the speakers reminded us that we were here for each other, for women’s rights, for fair wages, for black lives, for the environment. They told us to be mindful of autistic protestors who might be overstimulated, and to ensure accessibility for handicapped protestors. When one speaker asked us to lock eyes with a stranger and silently communicate that we saw each other, that we were fighting for each other, I started to cry.

And finally, more than half an hour late, we were called to march. We were told to exit towards the back and follow the march volunteers.

That’s when everything broke down.

The march had originally anticipated 25,000 participants, and by Friday, more than 105,000 had registered. Most people there, like me, had not, so the crowd was mind-bogglingly huge. “The back” is a relative term when you’re talking about an irregularly shaped park with multiple exits, and many people were too far from the loudspeakers to hear the instructions anyway. An hour after those instructions, when I finally made my way from the center of the park to its border amidst a sea of pink-hatted humanity, I discovered I was at the wrong exit, there was no indication of which exit might be the right one, and the communications blackout meant I couldn’t either check the website or ask a friend elsewhere in the crowd for directions. The crowd around me dispersed down multiple side streets and into the subway, many of them expressing frustration that if they’d only been told, “Make your way towards the corner of X and Y,” they would have done so. At that point, exhausted, overstimulated, and almost at the time when the march was supposed to end anyway, I followed the crowd to the subway and went home.

I learned two important lessons from all this. The first is that the hope and joy I felt throughout the morning ride and the speeches is real: we are surrounded by people who agree with us, who want to put their energy towards constructive, meaningful work. And the second is that we need to be mindful, in the next four years, not to get distracted or discouraged by obstacles, complications, or delays. We need to have clear lines of communication and good backup plans to ensure that the energy of all the people who show up, eager to help, doesn’t dissipate before it gets concrete results.

This was day one. It was a powerful day in its own right––and also provided a training ground for day two, and all the days that follow.

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Hidden Figures, Hidden Stories

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

There is a repeated scene throughout Hidden Figures in which Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) types her name into the bylines of her reports only to be told that “computers” (most of whom are women) don’t author papers; she must erase her identity from her work. This scene helps explain why the contributions of Johnson and other women were forgotten for so long, but it also says something important about which stories, and whose contributions, we validate as part of our culture.

When the hashtag #Oscarssowhite erupted, there were two main issues in play: First, how many excellent people of color had been overlooked in the 2016 awards season (and how few actors, writers, and directors of color had won in the almost-ninety-year history of the Oscars). And second, that when people of color were recognized, it was almost always for movies that depicted the horrors of slavery or the struggle of civil rights, the implication being that there were only certain stories about being black in America that were acceptable as “art.” That only stories of black suffering (caused by or alleviated by whites) had broader audience appeal or artistic merit, while stories of black people living life on their own terms couldn’t capture the attention of a broader (re: white) audience.

Hidden Figures, which made almost $22 million its opening weekend, definitively proves that is not true.  Without offering spoilers, one of the most refreshing things about the film is that it tells the story of three women who are full people. Aside from their contrasting personalities, the three protagonists have very different approaches to their work, and different priorities around raising their children. Each defines what success means and how to achieve it in her own way, and each has a complex life outside work. While the movie includes white characters, it doesn’t offer the tropes of whites as saviors or of “magical negroes” who selflessly help the white protagonists with no needs or drives of their own, which is particularly noticeable because a typical movie about NASA is very goal-oriented: the characters’ only focus is either getting someone into space (The Right Stuff) or getting them safely back to Earth (Apollo 13, or The Martian). But while the three main characters of Hidden Figures care deeply about the success of their mission, they care just as much about whether technological progress will put them out of work and what they can do, singly and collectively, to ensure their working lives go beyond this one great project.

Despite the film industry’s long-held fears that white audiences won’t identify with black characters, there are many moments in Hidden Figuresthat are powerfully universal in their particularity. Most people know the nervousness of getting back in the dating pool after a long stretch of being single, or the frustration of unofficially taking over a demanding job without getting the title or salary that position should bring; regardless of race, we know the ache of withholding complicated truths from children to avoid bruising their dreams. This is a story anyone can engage and identify with, and the theater where I saw the movie, which was packed with mostly white men and women, was a testament to a universal truth: people have a thirst for stories, not just for stories about people who look like them.

When I first started working for JWA, I was surprised (and immediately embarrassed by my surprise) at how many male educators were coming to us for teaching materials, how many male readers wrote in with comments, wanting to know more about someone on our site. Even I, who believed in the importance of women’s stories, couldn’t believe that men might feel the same way. That kind of failure of imagination diminishes us all. When we assume that men only want to hear stories about men, or whites only want to hear stories about whites, stories of women and minorities are marketed only to niche audiences, or are erased from our culture (and our history) altogether, and everybody loses. Instead, we should recognize the gift of offering people a glimpse into lives different from their own and allowing people to stretch their imaginations and sense of empathy by delighting in a fuller spectrum of stories.

The real-life consequences of the magical pregnancy trope

In Sarah Jeong’s fantastic Star Wars critique “Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy the Old Republic?”, she points out that Star Wars is a story written by a man who seems to lack even basic facts about pregnancy and female bodies for a target audience that also knows very little, and that this has frightening implications for women’s health issues in our own world.

That got me thinking about how the Magical Pregnancy Trope also perpetuates some really dangerous ideas about pregnancy and agency.

Although it’s sometimes used as a plot device for its own sake, the Magical Pregnancy is also used as a television workaround when a lead actress gets pregnant and can’t just randomly leave the show for a few months, and the writers don’t want to work all the complications of raising babies into their storylines for the next few years. Instead, the pregnancy is accelerated (because it’s the product of evil magic/science) to take place in only one or two episodes, and ends with the child being conveniently stolen or magically aged so the show doesn’t have to deal with babies for more too long.

Why is this problematic, aside from just being lazy writing? It feeds popular notions that pregnancy is something that just happens to women, ignoring the fact that pregnancy is usually the product of sexual intercourse and that men should take responsibility for individual pregnancies they help create, something writers would have to address if the father were part of the main cast. The men who are involved are essentially rapists, and abortion isn’t even discussed, let alone possible in these fantasy scenarios. And because these magical pregnancies can’t be explained by science, it perpetuates the notion that real pregnancies are also mysterious and uncontrollable, and just have to take their course. Which means we don’t need to fund research or health care for women’s issues and it’s either pointless or unnatural for women to claim agency over their own bodies.

The sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Highlander worked in a season-long arc where Anne got pregnant by another man, and Duncan had to decide whether he wanted to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood and what that might look like. White Collar hid one of Tiffani Thiessen’s pregnancies with careful camera angles and worked another into a longer storyline, and had Marsha Thomason’s lesbian character choose to get pregnant and decide what that would mean for her career as a field agent. And Firefly, had it continued, was clearly setting up a pregnancy storyline for Wash and Zoe. There are ways to either sidestep the issue or embrace it as a storytelling challenge, even on an action/adventure show.

Pop culture profoundly shapes our understanding of issues, sometimes in positive ways, as when sympathetic gay characters boost LGBT acceptance, sometimes in negative ones, like when crime shows perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks and latinos. Changing the Magical Pregnancy Trope, showing more women and couples choosing a pregnancy (or choosing to terminate one), showing pregnancy and labor as normal processes instead of body horror fantasies, and showing the normal consequence of carrying a pregnancy to term by writing infancy and childcare logistics into storylines could have a massive effect on how our culture understands pregnancy and women’s bodies in general.