Jennifer’s Body (2009): Sexuality and Social Relevance in Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama’s Cult Classic Horror Film

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year graduate student studying Women’s and Gender History at Sarah Lawrence College. Her interests include LGBT+ History, Media and Film Studies, and the use of music and movements.

This post contains spoilers for Jennifer’s Body (2009)

    Ten years ago, in the Fall of 2009, I was thirteen years old. I was hanging out at the mall, waiting for the moment that I could enter the movie theatre and see the film I’d been obsessing over for the entirety of the summer – Jennifer’s Body. Surrounded by fellow mallrats, I was wearing the “I Eat Boys” shirt I purchased from Hot Topic, and a messenger bag filled with dollar store candy. I was ready. As we all know, the film didn’t quite garner the success it deserved upon release. Now, ten years later, Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama are finally receiving praise for creating a brutally honest depiction of bisexuality and what it means to be a woman growing up in a patriarchal society. 

    The film follows best friends Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) as they face the hell that being a teenage girl is, figuratively and literally. Friends since the days of sandboxes and playing house, the two exhibit a bond that cannot be broken by high school popularity and even demonic possession. Jennifer plays the beautiful cheerleader, and Needy, the unpopular and awkward teen. In the first moments of the film, the audience finds Jennifer begging Needy to attend a concert for indie band Low Shoulder. The scene quickly escalates, and ends with the two escaping a music hall engulfed in flames. Once they’ve made it out, the band offers to take the two to safety. Needy begs Jennifer not to go with them. Ignoring her best friend’s pleas, she enters the sinister van.

The next time we see Jennifer is in the van. Now that they have her alone, the lead singer asks if she is a virgin, to which she responds “yes” with the hopes that having little to no sexual experience will save her from the unknown. What she doesn’t expect, but becomes swiftly informed of, is that they need a virginal body to sacrifice to the devil in exchange for fame. As she begs and pleads with them not to kill her, the men begin to sing Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” in a taunting manner as they slash and stab her. What they don’t know is that Jennifer Check is no virgin. The sacrifice that they enacted results in the demonic possession of her body. 

This scene is disturbing to say the least, but it is also familiar. Not in the sense that being a literal blood sacrifice is common, but her total loss of control and bodily autonomy at the hands of men that wish to grow into a place of power feels all too familiar. The sacrifice of Jennifer speaks to personal and publicized stories of assault by the hands of privileged white men that hold high positions of power politically and socially – for example, the case of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh. Cody presented her audience with a story that begins with trauma, is fueled by heartbreak, and ends with revenge wrapped up in demonic possession and teen drama. 

In recent years, many have come to realize that the film was well ahead of its time on social commentary, and its rise in popularity has sustained a steady increase since 2017. Fans of the film have marked it as a symbol of bisexuality, featuring lesbian overtones between Jennifer and Needy. The film itself is a larger statement on women’s sexuality, but the relationship between the two friends is a love story and it permeates throughout the entire film. When we first enter the film, we see them looking at each other with complete adoration as the lyrics for I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You by the band Black Kids plays in the background – “You are the girl, that I’ve been dreaming of / Ever since I was a little girl.”  The love between Jennifer and Needy isn’t simply sandbox love, and Cody never intended it to be read as just that either. 

Cody’s film starts, climaxes, and ends with the two women as the primary focus. Kusama and Cody created a unique and honest depiction of a lesbian relationship; one filled with longing, resentment, joy, and love. It’s one that we don’t see in mainstream films that identify as marketed towards an LGBT+ audience. Despite this, Jennifer’s Body was unable to escape the male gaze and poorly executed marketing team that manipulated the trailers to appease an audience of teenage boys. Back when I was thirteen and walked into the theatre, most audience members were indeed men. I remember hearing my classmates talk about how incredibly hot the “girls kissing on the bed” scene was and how Megan Fox was the epitome of sex. To this day, I get a little aggravated by these remarks when I look back on it. It’s so obvious that the director and screenwriter did not want this to be the takeaway.

Jennifer’s Body is a movie about a teenage girl that was brutally taken advantage of by men for their benefit. It follows the relationship of two friends that are actually deeply in love with one another. The ending showcases the revenge that Jennifer wanted and the love that Needy felt for her, even when she killed Chip. I refuse to spoil the ending for any of you, so what I will do is suggest that once you finish reading this post, go online and rent the film, watch for the details, and appreciate what Cody and Kusama gave to their audience in 2009; how deeply it reflects what we see today in politics, society, and culture and how important it is for teenagers to see accurate depictions of bisexuality to combat against its erasure.

Liberation in Women’s Healthcare

Written by Alison Feese
Alison is a student working to become a Certified Nurse Midwife. She is a birth doula and advocate for women’s health. She is from Columbia, Kentucky and provides services across Central Kentucky.

Liberation is the act of setting something free from imprisonment or oppression. Whether it is our mind, body, or soul, we are often not aware of the imprisonment we are trapped in. Modern women are in a system that teaches us to fear our body, to not trust it, and that it is broken. These messages are sent from a variety of places. In 2019, we expect movies, advertisements, and social media to make us feel less than perfect; but what about our healthcare providers and hospitals? What happens when the very people we trust with our health doubt the ability and strength of our body? That is why I have chosen to go into midwifery. It is an art that trusts the mind, body, and soul of a woman as it is.

Midwifery is arguably the oldest profession. It has been around since people started procreating. Nobody knows when midwives appeared in history, mainly because they were always there. Where there was a birthing woman, you can bet that there was a midwife next to her. The term midwife literally means with-woman. They are primary care providers in women’s health specializing in the childbearing process. They care for women of all ages and even assist in newborn care. Midwifery is an art that blends science, tradition, and the trust of a woman’s body. 

As cheesy as it sounds, midwifery chose me. I couldn’t escape this career path. Midwifery in the United States was born just a few miles away from me in Eastern, KY where nurse midwives would ride horseback into the rough mountains to deliver care to the nation’s poorest and sickest. Appalachia was left medically isolated. These pioneers rode through snow and storm expecting to provide child birthing care, but ended up caring for the whole family. This care alone cut the infant and maternal mortality rate, and increased the quality of life for thousands without the expectation of payment. What an honor it is to place my hand in a profession that was built upon helping the poorest in my own backyard. Today, the United States is the only developed nation that has a RISING maternal mortality rate. We are also the only industrialized nation that does not use midwifery care as the standard practice. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disrespecting the wonderful OB/GYNs I will work next to. I am so thankful we have technology and physicians to provide life-saving surgery. Modern medicine is a fantastic thing when it is used appropriately. But something has to change in the United States. If trusting the art of midwifery will reduce these mortality rates, why aren’t we doing it?!

Midwifery core-competencies include things like assisting with breech deliveries, out of hospital births, and holistic treatments. However, these things are not commonly practiced in the United States. Midwives are taught to trust the female body, and allow it to work as designed. They use a hands-off approach. If something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Problems happen when we use unnecessary interventions in healthcare and tell women that their bodies are not capable. This includes things like unnecessary cesarean sections, inductions, and augmentations of labor. These practices not only increase undesirable outcomes, but they make women question the ability of their bodies.  Midwifery is the ultimate liberation from the body-shaming world we are surrounded by. 

Midwives today play different roles in different states. Some provide childbirth care for women in and out of the hospital. Some work to provide abortion care. Some midwives assist with fertility within the LGBTQ communities. Many serve our amish communities in rural areas. They work with victims of sexual violence. Midwives fill different roles dependant upon their community’s needs, but they all have the same goal. To provide patient-centered care to the populations they serve. They trust the female body, and reject the idea that women are not capable. They stress the importance of informed consent and make women the most important member in the healthcare team. Midwifery care is counter-culture to the world around us. For instance, midwives do not deliver babies. They catch babies, and mothers deliver them. This profession is selfless and places the honor on the patient. Women are more than capable of making choices for themselves and their family. We run into problems when we tell them they can’t. Whatever a family chooses, midwives are there to support and educate them along the way.

Featured Photo: Frontier Nursing Service midwife makes postpartum visit, slide, c. 1930s. Nurse-Midwifery Program Records.

Rojava and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict: Cultural Genocide in Afrin and International Silence

By Noelle Iati

Noelle is an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College

In my last post, I explained the reasons for the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Turkish interest in destroying the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, commonly known as Rojava. In this post, I explore the gross human rights violations committed by Turkish forces and their jihadist allies pursuing a cultural genocide in Afrin, the northwesternmost region of Rojava which borders Turkey, and the international response to these violations.

    Turkey attacked the Rojava district of Afrin on January 20, 2018. After two months of fighting, Turkish forces captured Afrin city on March 23, 2018, officially concluding the “combat phase” of the operation. From the beginning of the attack, Turkish forces and their jihadist auxiliaries were accused of violating international humanitarian law protecting civilians in armed conflict. In the report from its February 25 to March 22, 2018 session, the United Nations Human Rights Council Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic highlighted potential war crimes committed by Turkish forces and their allies in Afrin, including the arbitrary killings of civilians by car bombs, landmines, and IEDs, kidnappings for ransom, pillaging of property, sexual harassment, and torture. The report also states concerns over Afrin residents’ reports of a lack of rule of law. Turkey, as an occupying power, was obligated under the Fourth Geneva Convention to do everything in its power to prevent civilians from being caught in the crossfire during the conflict, and certainly was obligated to prevent the blatant abuse of civilians in the war zone. It has also been alleged that Turkey intentionally destroyed hospitals, religious buildings, and cultural heritage sites.

    Unfortunately, the abuse did not end after Turkey captured Afrin. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State Human Rights Reports on Turkey and Syria, and news outlets such as Kurdistan 24 and Politurco have all alleged the continued random killings of civilians, the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals (mostly Kurdish), the seizing, looting, and destruction of property belonging to Kurdish residents, and the arbitrary arrest, detention, forcible disappearance, and torture of Kurdish civilians. Following Afrin’s capture, roadblocks and checkpoints were instituted preventing humanitarian aid from reaching affected areas, while the only humanitarian services allowed in the area at all were those registered in Turkey. Meanwhile, the same roadblocks and checkpoints prevented many from leaving the war zone to access necessary medical care. Kurdish refugees were also blocked from receiving aid at the Serdem refugee camp.

    While all of these abuses have targeted the Kurdish population of Afrin, perhaps the most telling indicators of Turkish intentions in the region have involved intentional demographic change and “Arabization” or “Turkification” of the area. Kurdish refugees returning home after the fighting in many cases found their homes occupied by Arab refugees from Eastern Ghouta or by soldiers and their families, while Turkish-backed jihadist rebel groups controlling Afrin have pushed for the forced displacement of the remaining Kurdish population. In the city of Afrin, road and place names have been changed from Kurdish to Arabic, including one square renamed after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has already appointed its own teachers and civil servants and installed Turkish-language schools and mosques. In some cases, children have been exposed to the ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist Turkish “Grey Wolves” propaganda in their schools. In April of this year, Turkey started to build a concrete wall separating Afrin from the rest of Rojava.

    Incredibly, despite extensive documentation of all of these abuses by international human rights and humanitarian organizations including the United Nations, the international community has remained mostly silent to these attacks on the peaceful and democratic Kurdish enclave. Despite Rojava’s focus on gender equality, human rights, and the democratic principles the West claims to stand on, it has utterly refused to defend Rojava from Turkey’s illegal attack, and most nations have not publicly condemned Turkey’s actions. Western media, especially the American press, has, for the most part, stayed silent on the issue has well. As President Donald Trump plans to pull American troops out of Syria entirely, Turkish-backed rebels have prepared to advance eastward toward the city of Manbij and to use the hefty advantage American withdrawal would give them to advance further east into Rojava. While President Trump has promised economic repercussions should Turkey attack Manbij and National Security Advisor John Bolton has claimed (independently of the President) that Americans would not pull out of Syria without assurances from Turkey that it would leave northern Syria to its Kurdish allies, Syrian Kurds worry about their ability to defend their home. As one of the most democratic regions in the war-torn Middle East, Kurds in Rojava wonder why the West, which claims to have gone to war in the Middle East to protect democracy for all, has refused to recognize Rojava or commit to protecting it from Turkey.

    Western military presence in the Middle East is a complex issue mired in difficult questions about capitalist imperialism. But if the West claims to support self-determination, democracy, and human rights, then it cannot continue to stay silent on the issue of Kurdish independence or the efforts of the Turkish government to destroy the Kurdish political project.

Rojava and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict:  What is behind Operation Olive Branch?

By Noelle Iati
Noelle is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

In all likelihood, the person reading this could not point to Rojava on a map, and has probably never even heard that name. You would be shocked to learn that the people of Rojava, this place of which you have never heard, were among America’s most important allies in the struggle against the Islamic State. You might also be shocked to learn that the people of Rojava have been under an unprovoked attack by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed jihadist auxiliaries for nearly two years. What, you might wonder, is so offensive about the people of Rojava? The answer: they’re Kurdish.

Formally known as the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, Rojava has existed independently of Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical rule since its three cantons declared independence in 2014, growing to encompass all of the Al-Hasakah governorate and the better parts of the Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah, and Deir ez-Zor governorates of Syria, including the cities of Manbij, Raqqa, Qamishli, Al-Hasakah, Kobane, and Afrin. The region has historically made up the western part of Kurdistan, and today represents the hope of self-determination for the Kurdish people. Despite its emphasis on democracy, human rights, and gender equality—Rojava has already outlawed torture and the death penalty (leagues ahead of neighboring states), and it would be an understatement to say that women play an important role in Rojava’s government and judicial system—Rojava is not formally recognized as a state by any democratic world power for fear of the political repercussions of the move, and therefore has no power on the world stage and little access to foreign aid. While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) that act as the military arms of the region have been able to protect it from the Islamic State and the administration has also for the most part been able to stave off al-Assad’s government, its invasion by Turkey–that one you’ve never heard of–could defeat the fledgling democratic utopia.

The Republic of Turkey also contains the northern portion of Kurdistan, and has done its best to suppress Turkish Kurds (Kurdish language in Turkey is heavily restricted, Kurdish schools and cultural institutions have been shut down, and Turkey has removed scores of Kurdish intellectuals, reporters, authors, and other professionals). Like so many of the ethnic conflicts plaguing the Middle East, the “Kurdish problem” in Turkey can be traced back to the Treaty of Sèvres and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. Before World War I, the Kurdish people were allowed to move around their ancestral homeland with relative freedom as one of many cultural groups living under Ottoman rule. After the war, the Allies divided the Ottoman Empire into several sections, attempting to diminish Ottoman power (and further European imperialist interests). While a unified Kurdistan was envisioned in treaty negotiations, the Allies were entirely unequipped to be making such complicated identity-based decisions for former subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and though they kept most of Kurdistan together, they placed it inside the new state of Turkey and excluded the parts of Kurdistan in what became Syria, Iran, and Iraq

Since then, the independence movement among Kurdish people has been strong, while they have remained a mistreated minority group in each state of which they are a part. Recent independence movements in Iraq and Syria have been successful, with the Kurdistan region of Iraq operating almost entirely autonomously within the Iraqi state and Rojava developing as an autonomous Kurdish region. This puts Turkey in a difficult position as the pro-Kurdish militia group connected to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (the PKK, considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and much but not all of the West) fights a guerrilla war against Turkish forces and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, gains seats in Turkey’s parliament. The existence of Rojava right across Turkey’s southern border threatens Turkish hegemony while emboldening the PKK and Kurdish nationalist movements. 

Enter: Operation Olive Branch. Following the American proposal to patrol the Turkish-Syrian border with soldiers Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG and YPJ, the Turkish military launched an unprovoked attack on the district of Afrin, Rojava’s northwesternmost enclave. Turkey, contrary to its NATO allies, considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization with connections to the PKK in Turkey as a Kurdish nationalist militia. Therefore, the mere idea of such an organization patrolling its border as a protective measure against the Islamic State is, to Turkey, completely unacceptable. Ultimately, though, Turkey’s explanations for its assault on Afrin amount to misrepresentations of the truth at best, and at worst outright lies that many believe are intended to mask Turkey’s true motivation of destroying the autonomous Kurdish region of Syria.

This post is part one of two on the situation in the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. In the next post, Turkey’s deplorable human rights violations in Afrin and beyond will be exposed and the world response to these violations analyzed.

Current Issues in Education: Kentucky Teachers on Strike

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah McCandless is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence in Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include education, women in Appalachia, and the Civil War.

Though a completely incorrect assumption, I grew up thinking that there were not that many activists in the state of Kentucky. I thought for some reason that activism happened in large cities, which Kentucky is especially short on. I don’t know why I thought this, but that was what I assumed. Sometime during college I realized that activism was everywhere, it was just poorly publicized. It wasn’t until about year ago, in late 2017 and early 2018, that a protest in Kentucky gained the kind of national attention that I imagined was required for activism to really have made it to the big time. (Yes, my ideas about what activism meant were very skewed, I’m working on it.)  

Kentucky teachers went on strike. The Kentucky legislature was working to pass laws that would affect teacher pensions, both those of current and future teachers. Already one of the worst pension programs in the country, teachers were obviously infuriated. Inspired by other states’ teachers, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers went on strike en mass. Wearing all red, the teachers worked to have the pension plan not pass. When the plan was signed by the governor, Kentucky’s elected officials overthrew the plan with a veto. Kentucky teachers had in large part been a deciding factor in this political action, and it made a difference. 

Though I did not realize it at the time, Kentucky teachers (largely women) had long been advocating for themselves. The laws on state workers in Kentucky protesting are skewed toward keeping politicians in power without backlash, and so many Kentucky teachers, who are not unionized, found themselves in difficult situations with their activism. But as it turns out, Kentucky teachers have been protesting for many years with some of their most prominent protests happening in the years of 1970, 1976, and 1988, as well as the strikes in 2018. The pattern of activism had to start somewhere, and though it was likely long before 1970, when the first major protest was documented, this is where we begin our historical journey. 

On February 23, 1970, seventeen thousand teachers from 72 districts did not show up to their classes. That day, only 120 of the 193 school districts held classes, while teachers across the state protested. Because so many teachers took off, numerous schools closed. Teachers were fighting for more money and demanded a pay increase of $300. With one of the lowest salaries of any teachers in the country at an opening salary of $5,000, they were fighting with elected officials for a more substantial and economically sustainable pay. Not only was the pay not enough to survive on, but it also caused some teachers to decide to leave the state completely. Because teachers were not unionized, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) which most teachers were a part of, advocated to have more say in non-salary issues, such as sick and vacation days.  

Throughout that school year, the National Education Association, or the NEA, documented 180 teacher strikes, times when teachers stopped working, or “interruptions of service,” across the country. In the same report, it said that there had only been five state wide strikes across the country in the last ten years. Two of them were in Kentucky, one in 1966 and the other in 1970. Documentation on the 1966 strike is more sparse, but it is clear that the tradition of teacher activism goes back further than what is properly documented. There were numerous protests throughout the 1970s organized by teachers, and their most significant success was a 5% pay raise. Also during these protests, two significant decisions were made. First, these were the protests that would lead to a court battle to prohibit Kentucky teachers from striking in the future. Second, these protests led to an unsuccessful bid to allow teachers to unionize. Both of these losses would create issues for teachers down the road. 

Jumping forward to 1976, a strike by teachers in Louisville, Kentucky, the 18th largest school district in the country, led to just over 100,000 students missing school for multiple days in November. Ths strike came on the heels of a court order to desegregate and the merger of the city school district (which mostly had African American students) and the county school district (which mostly had white students). The merger seemed to put a new strain on teachers whose classes were too big and whose salaries were too small. Teachers were striking for better pay and better over time benefits, but the district was already strapped for money because the merger also took significant funding from the budget. Some 5,600 teachers demanded better pay, especially for teachers who had bachelor’s degrees. The full demand was for an additional $23 million in order to cover the raises. The Board of Education was able to instead pull together a meager $8.1 million for raises and reduced class sizes. Though very little, the teachers once again affected great change in their pay. 

On March 17th, 1988, 92 out of 178 Kentucky school districts voted to close their doors and add an extra day at the end of the year so that their teachers could attend a rally in Frankfort, Kentucky. The rally urged lawmakers to vote no on the new governor’s budget which had low teacher raises and cut successful educational programs while pushing money into new, untested programs. This protest and the reaction of the school districts, many of which had the support of their school boards, was unique in that it was one of the first times where the educational community all seemed to be on the same page regarding what needed to be done in order for education to continue to successfully work for students and teachers state wide. The newly elected governor, Wallace G. Wilkinson, had pledged major changes during his bid for the office. His view was one which mainly supported his new ideas on education and did not take into account the successful measures pushed through the legislature a mere two years earlier which were well supported and liked by the educational community. The protest took place one day before legislators were to vote. It was spurred in part by a desire for change, but also by harsh words from the governor which showed his disinterest in Kentucky teachers, their needs, and their students. A heated debate, massive support, and a petition with 47,000 signatures later, the legislature promised not to let the spending plan go through. 

An absolute powerhouse, the Kentucky Teachers Association and its members would prove to be a force to be reckoned with. In 2005, the governor at the time was going to pass a bill which would increase health insurance costs and dig too deep into the 3% raise teachers received that year. Teachers had already organized for a protest if the governor did not change his plans. Just days before teachers would surround the capital, the governor changed his plans out of fear of backlash. Governor Bevin should have thought back to this when he criticized the teachers for protesting his pension plan in 2018, because when he fought back, he was hit with a firestorm of criticism from teachers in the state and across the country, taking away even more power from his proposed plan. Kentucky apparently does have a long history of activism. With elections around the corner and teachers being one of the largest groups of any profession in the state, candidates better watch out, because those teachers? They’ll get ya. 

Bibliography

Brant, Elizabeth. “Teacher Strikes, Work Stoppages, and Interruptions of Service, 1969-1970 NEA Research Memo.” National Education Association, August 30, 1970, 1-13. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED070157.pdf.

Hoff, David J. “Kentucky Teachers Cancel Strike Plans.” Education Week. February 22, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/10/27/09caps-1.h24.html.

“Louisville Schools Are Closed by Strike by Teachers.” The New York Times. December 01, 1976. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/01/archives/louisville-schools-are-closed-by-strike-by-teachers.html.

“Thousands of Kentucky Teachers Strike on Pay.” The New York Times. February 24, 1970. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/02/24/archives/thousands-of-kentucky-teachers-strike-on-pay-they-want-300-more.html.

Walker, Reagan. “Kentucky Schools Out For Funding Protests.” Education Week. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1988/03/23/26ky.h07.html.

Stranger Things, Erica Sinclair, and the Representation of Black Women in the Science Fiction Genre

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence College in Women’s and Gender History. Her interests include popular culture, LGBT+ history, and the history of movements through music. 

Spoiler Alert: This blog contains spoilers from season three of Stranger Things. 

On October 27, 2017, the highly anticipated second season of the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix original series, Stranger Things, premiered. Coated in mid-1980s nostalgia and four puffs (no more, no less) of Farrah Fawcett hairspray, audience members crowded around their iPhones, tablets, laptops, and television sets to consume the strange events that would unfold. Prior to its release, comedians and fans questioned where Lucas Sinclair’s, one of the only main characters of color, family was. Surely, he wouldn’t be the only person of color in Indiana, right? Ergo, season two episode two, titled “Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak.” The Duffers introduced us to his parents, Mr. (Bradford Haynes and Arnell Powell) and Mrs. Sinclair (Tara Wescott and Karen Ceesay), and his younger sister, Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson). For the first time, women of color appear in the series. 

Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair Photo Courtesy of The Mary Sue

Once season two came to a close, audience members and fan theorists took to the internet to exclaim that they needed more of Erica Sinclair in season three. No longer a background character in the third installment, Erica becomes a key player in battling the Mind Flayer, tracking down the Russia lab, and navigating dangerous terrain. Premiering on July 4, 2019, every episode features the tactful, witty, and bold young woman. A multidimensional character, she defies stereotypes of nerds and nerd culture, asserts her worth, and demands the respect that the other characters don’t always give her. Within and outside of this Science Fiction universe, Erica Sinclair speaks to an audience of young Black women and girls that take on the white patriarchy that seeks to undermine their worth and importance. 

Looking at the history of black women in SciFi, Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Uhura, a bridge officer, on Star Trek in 1966. She was the first Black woman cast in a supporting role, and it spoke to the young Black people that tuned into the program that hadn’t seen themselves represented in popular culture. While she wanted to leave the program to become a Broadway actress, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked for her to reconsider, as the show had become a staple in his own home. Nichols ultimately remained on Star Trek, knowing that she was changing the way that young Black men and women viewed themselves based on her prominent role that subverted Hollywood stereotypes. Similar to Lieutenant Uhura, Erica Sinclair subverts the notion that Black women must fall into stereotypical roles and that the role of hero belongs to white faces. Without her, the Upside Down wouldn’t have closed in Hawkins, as she knew exactly how to guide each character to where they needed to be, and they wouldn’t have been able to break into the Russian lab. In short, Hawkins would be no more. 

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, Photo Courtesy of Paste

Erica Sinclair and Lieutenant Uhura are only two of the countless examples of Black women utilizing the genre of Science Fiction to challenge the stereotypes that they are commonly written into. As the genre is predominantly white and male, authors Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkins, and Nora K. Jemisin use their platform with the genre storytelling of SciFi to provide their audience with empowering characters of color. Their novels showcase the importance of representation in all formats; whether television, movies, and/or written formats. Butler uses her authorial power to craft stories about Black women who face a challenge shrouded in historical accuracy of the dangerous white heteropatriarchy, navigate it, and come out on the other end to challenge these structures that are placed upon Black women in history and contemporarily. She is one of the most, if not the most, influential Black woman author of Science Fiction and Afrofuturist literature in the 20th and 21st century. 

Her works have been adapted into a variety of formats in theatre and in graphic novels in order to reach a broader audience. Undoubtedly, there is a growing interest in Afrofuturist popular culture, with the release of Black Panther (2018) and Sorry to Bother You (2018). It speaks to the importance of representation of Black men and women in the Science Fiction genre, especially in works that are not considered “indie” and enter mainstream popularity. The SciFi genre broadly promises a world where any and all things are possible, and characters like Erica Sinclair, Lieutenant Uhura, T’Challa, and Okoye are showcasing that exact ideology to young Black men and women. They subvert racist stereotypes and their presence in popular culture empowers their audience. Science Fiction, through these characters and by representing Black men and women, has the ability to challenge injustices and provide commentary on society, culture, and politics, even if it appears detached from the 21st century – 1980s Hawkins, Indiana. 

For more on Afrofuturism, please listen to The Afrofuturist Podcast .


All the World’s a Stage, and All the Women are More than Just Players: A Spotlight on Women in Theatre Production

By Vickie Nidweski
Vickie is a second year in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College and has been working in theatre production professionally for almost a decade.

This past June marked the 73rd annual Tony Awards. Known as the highest honor in United States theatre, it recognizes excellence on the Broadway stage. As I sat in my own theatre, mere blocks away from the ceremony commencing at Radio City Music Hall, tears of pure joy started to run down my face. Holy Shit, Jessica Paz just won a Tony for Sound Design. Not only did Jessica win, but she became the first woman to be nominated in the category. Jessica, along with Director Rachel Chavkin and Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck, all took home Tony’s for their work on the production of Hadestown. While this is certainly a significant moment to recognize, I am dismayed that many in the community know very little of the rich history of women directors, designers, and other women in theatre production who contributed to the rise and success of modern commercial theatre.

In 2010, American Theatre Historian, Helen Krich Chinoy stated that, “While accepted, even encouraged, as performers and occasionally, playwrights, women have largely been excluded from most aspects of show business.” She further states that this exclusion, specifically in the creative and technical aspects of production, is due in part to the labeling of these occupations and trades as “for men only.” Chinoy defines this reasoning as the hierarchical power structure of theatre; if the organization is experimental or community-oriented, or the artistic skill is new, women are more likely situated in a lower tier. Once skills and trades become more formalized into legitimate professions, women’s participation becomes diminished, ignored, and forgotten. 

Many Theatre Historians have explored women’s earliest contributions to theatre production. Specifically, during the rise of American Theatre in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century, production and design quickly developed as legitimate vocations. Like Chinoy, historians often cite individual women in their achievements in backstage work as an example of how “women’s talent and skills have challenged the barriers erected by the male domination of the professional production process.” In addition, Theatre Historians sometimes cite small networks of women working with women. No offense to Chinoy, but by stating that there were networks, and to simply make note of achievements of specific women in behind-the-scenes theatrical production, without illustrating how incredibly vast and influential these networks were and still are, is problematic. It does not pay favor towards the exploration of the gendered division of theatrical labor. 

Yes, Chinoy is correct that women’s participation in these skills and trades have been diminished, ignored, and often forgotten. But if one dives deep enough, there is actually a treasure trove of women that helped formalize the trades and skills in technical production. Let us look at the Lighting Designer, Jean Rosenthal. From 1930-1969, Jean Rosenthal was indeed a pioneer in the field of light design for theatre and dance, lighting over one hundred productions in her thirty-nine-year career. Yet, she never received any awards while she was alive, despite her work on notable productions such as West Side Story, Cabaret, and Orson Welles The Cradle Will Rock, or with such dance companies like Martha Graham and City Ballet. She did posthumously receive a special Outer Critics award in 1969.

Rosenthal was instrumental in developing the standards of drafting light plots that are still implemented today. She created a methodical and unified approach to lighting. Rosenthal, while involved with United Scenic Artists of America Local 829 – an autonomous local of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and PaperHangers of America – she also worked with her peers (including Peggy Lee Clark and Tharon Musser) on creating the standards of how the union must treat Lighting Designers. Born in 1912 in New York City to Russian immigrants, she studied acting and dance in 1929 at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, founded by Irene and Alice Lewisohn. The Neighborhood Playhouse, was part of the Henry Street Settlement, created by Lillian Wald. The Henry Street Settlement continues to serve its original intent as a nonprofit social service agency to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is important to note that this playhouse was the first theatre in New York “to design and make all its own scenery, costume and properties-thus launching the concept that stagecraft could itself be a significant art form.”

But Rosenthal is just one of many. Also deriving from the Neighborhood Playhouse is Scenic and Costume Designer, Aline Bernstein. Aline became the first woman to join USA829 in November of 1926 with fellow Scenic/Costume designer Gladys Calthrop and Carolyn Hancock. (I am saddened to say, I have yet to find more information on Hancock but I hope further research will open up her story.) Without Aline’s tenacity in joining USA829, Jean Rosenthal would never have been able to advocate for the equal rights of Light Designers. We can still see Aline Bernstein’s influence today in founding the Costume Collection along with Irene Lewisohn, now housed at the MET Museum. It is important to note how important the Neighborhood Playhouse was in cultivating such revolutionary women. Biographer Carol Klein in her book on Aline notes that during her time at the Neighborhood Playhouse “These women (Bernstein and the Lewisohn sisters) believed that what they were doing for the neighborhood had cultural implications that extended far beyond it.” With newspapers citing the Neighborhood Playhouse as a “women’s theatre”, it is a site of origin to explore the vast network of women working with women to help contribute to the rise and success of Theatre in New York City. 

Rachel Chavkin stated in her acceptance speech for her Direction on Hadestown (the only woman nominated), “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.” And there have been Rachel. There have been women in this field that have been silenced. Their work has been diminished and forgotten. Jean and Aline are just two, and there are so much more. It is a failure on theatre history to not acknowledge the incredibly vast network of women and I hope that by continuing research of this vast and incredible network of women working in production, will to drive and inspire the theatre community and recognize their equal contribution to Theatre. We are equal players, it’s time to recognize it. 

END NOTES

Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins. 2006. Women in American Theatre. Rev. and expanded 3rd. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 179.

Klein, Carole. 1979. Aline. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 173.