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.

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 .


HOW THE INTERSECTION OF RACE, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY INFLUENCES STEPHANIE BEATRIZ AS ROSA DIAZ ON BROOKLYN NINE-NINE

By Katie Swartwood
Katie graduated from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College in May, 2019.

A Latina woman named Rosa Diaz stands before a Pictionary drawing pad; her card says “wedding.” Her black marker hits the paper, drawing two feminine stick figures holding hands. Her mother calls out a guess, “friends.” Rosa keeps drawing, adding a heart above the women’s heads. She yells out, “sisters.” Rosa frantically scribbles hearts all over the paper while her mother guesses, “business partners” and “co-owners of a chocolate shop.” Rosa frustratingly cuts her mother off to exclaim that it’s a wedding. She takes a deep breath before addressing her parents. She explains that she could either end up marrying a man, like her parents want, or a woman, because she is not simply going through a phase. She is bisexual. Her dad interrupts, “There’s no such thing.” Rosa assures them that bisexuality does exist because she identifies as such.

This scene if from Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s episode, “Game Night.” Over the years, this sitcom has proven itself to be a progressive comedy focused on highlighting social issues. Its diverse cast, which includes the Jewish main character, two Latina detectives, two African American men in positions of power, one of which is gay, an Italian assistant, and three white male detectives, has discussed topics like LGBT issues and police bias against African Americans. Despite its comedic center, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not shy away from sensitive issues. In “Game Night,” the show combats a number of stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding bisexuality.

When Rosa, played by Stephanie Beatriz, comes out to her parents it is in a turbulent scene in which her parents allude to the fact that they would be happier if she was a mistress in a heterosexual relationship rather than be in a romantic relationship with a woman. Before storming out, Rosa tells her parents that their worst fears have come true. She is in a relationship with a woman. Despite this conflict, her parents still invite her to family game night, giving Rosa hope that they will be accepted. However, her parents do not hesitate to bring up her sexuality. Her mother explains, “…No matter what you call yourself you still like men. So you can still get married and have a child.” When Rosa defends her sexuality, saying that she can do the same  with a woman, her father proclaims that she will do it with man because she is only going through a “phase.”

This scene is significant in a number of ways. For one, the show does not rely on a token LGBT character. Brooklyn Nine-Nine depicts multiple ethnic/gender/sexual identities. The fact that Rosa is in a female queer relationship is worth note. Historically, women’s homosexual relationships have often been overlooked. Judith Bennett in “The L Word in Women’s History” explains that as historians, “Most still see the past in heteronormative terms, closeting our thinking by failing to consider that the dead women we study might have been other than heterosexuals, other than wives, mothers, and lovers of men.” (1) Her article presents two critical mistakes historians tend to make when writing about the histories of women. The first is that historians often frame women in the context of their heterosexual relationships, instead of the lives of the women. 

The other issue historians face is interpreting subtleties that could indicated women participated in homosexual relationships. This is also influenced by cultural and societal understandings of women’s homosexual relationships. Although Bennett’s focus is on medieval women’s same sex relationships, she helps trace a historical ignorance towards such relationships. As she explains, since women’s homosexual relationships could not disturb bloodlines, i.e., result in a child, and if no phallic props were used, it was seen by some medieval writers and priests as less sexual and, thus, less sinful than other sexual relationships. (2) While she examines ideas that are several centuries old, I do not believe they are completely left in the past. For instance, sex is popularly defined in terms of men penetrating women Many people understand how heterosexual couples and male homosexual couples have sex, but when two women engage in sexual intercourse they are met with questions like “How do you have sex?” or “How do you lose your virginity?” 

This phallocentrism is important to recognizing the significance of depicting Rosa, a woman character engaged in a homosexual relationship, on mainstream television. While television has made great progress in creating dynamic LGBT characters, the focus has been on male gay characters. In their 2016-2017 “Where We Are On TV” report, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that gay men make up 49% of the LGBT regular or recurring characters on broadcast television alone, while lesbians make up only 17%, and bisexual characters rose 10 percentage points to 30%, with the majority of these characters presenting as female. (3) Additionally, their report helps illustrate how queer female characters struggle to remain in the story once they have been introduced. They found that more than 25 queer female characters were killed off since the beginning of 2016, often for no other reason than to further the story of the usually cisgendered, straight main character. (4) These statistics show the continued emphasis on male queerness while queer women are often overlooked.

Furthermore, it is important to look at Rosa’s representation as a Latina LBGT character on television. GLAAD reports that only 26% of women of color characters are Latina and only 6% are LGBT characters across five main broadcasting networks. (5) Rosa’s character is statistically uncommon, making her significant addition to the small screen. She has the ability to show queer Latina women that their stories are worth telling. Moreover, Rosa’s character does not sit on the sidelines on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Her involvement is important to plot lines since she serves as one of the main characters. Furthermore, alongside her other Latina co-star, she highlights that Latina women serves as more than maids or sex symbols. 

It is also worth noting that the actress who portrays Rosa, Stephanie Beatriz, identifies as bisexual herself. This is critical because while LGBT characters account for a minority of overall characters, the actors that play them are often cisgendered or straight. This fact that straight actors continually win awards for their portrayal of LGBT characters, while LGBT actors are not awarded for any roles. For example, no openly gay actor has been awarded an Oscar for Best Actor, while straight or cisgendered actors have won Oscars for playing queer characters. Having a bisexual actor portraying a bisexual character is essential because it allows for not only authenticity, but it also provides LBGT actors and actresses the opportunity to broadcast their talents. 

Stephanie Beatriz has spent six seasons on a popular show, playing a character that resembles herself. Something she explains as noticeably absent while she grew up. (6) This is not only in terms of race and gender, but also her sexuality. Beatriz actively engages with the media to discuss her struggles. She raised awareness for several issues she has experienced, such as diversity, disordered eating, and her sexuality. She came out via twitter, apparently before even telling her parents, who she explained were not as thrilled about her sexuality as the general public was. (7) This is a similar reaction that her character, Rosa, faced. Beatriz allowed her own experiences to direct her character, adding depth and credibility to Rosa on screen. 

Recently Stephanie Beatriz had the opportunity to portray another lesbian women of color on the small screen when she guest starred on Netflix’s One Day at a Time as Pilar. Pilar was a married, lesbian relative of the Alvarez family, the main focus of the show. On this episode Pilar served a role model for the young Elena, a Cuban-American who identifies as lesbian and dates her non-binary partner, Syd. In this episode, Elena clings to Beatriz’s character since she serves as a representation of someone similar to herself. This is why authentic representations of queer women on screen is essential. It allows young women to realize they are not alone, that other women like them exist, too. 


End Notes:

  1. Judith M. Bennett. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.), 109. 
  2. Judith M. Bennett. “The L-Word in Women’s History.”, 111. 
  3. “Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion ’16-’17,” GLAAD, 6. https://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2016-2017.pdf 
  4. “Where We Are on TV,” 3.
  5. “Where We Are on TV,” 12, 18.
  6. Stephanie Beatriz, “On My Radar.” 
  7. Trish Bendix, “Stephanie Beatriz on Coming Out as Bisexual and Her Celebrity Crushes.” AfterEllen.com, August 10, 2016. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/498435-stephanie-beatriz-coming-bisexual-celebrity-crushes#1HAX6AxBiF3X42bU.99 

Bibliography:

Beatriz, Stephanie. “On My Radar: Stephanie Beatriz Shares Why Diversity On TV is Important.” Latina.com, August 6, 2016. http://www.latina.com/blogs/stephanie-beatriz/diversity-on-tv-latina-roles

Bendix, Trish. “Stephanie Beatriz on Coming Out as Bisexual and Her Celebrity Crushes.” AfterEllen.com, August 10, 2016. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/498435-stephanie-beatriz-coming-bisexual-celebrity-crushes#1HAX6AxBiF3X42bU.99

Bennett, Judith M. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

“Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion ’16-’17,” GLAAD. https://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2016-2017.pdf

 

A Love Letter to Michelle Obama

By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College. 

Dear Michelle Obama, 

You’re a great writer. (I mean really, really good.) I think a lot of people ready your book and it filled them up in a way they didn’t know they needed. It did the same for me and sometimes I still go back to read a random chapter or two just because of the comfort of it. Though titled a love letter, this is more of an extremely positive book review of Becoming. (Now that I’ve written it, I can say this is less of a book review and more of a wow-what-a-great-book-I-am-still-processing review.) Don’t get me wrong, I totally love you, Michelle Obama. I am so very thankful that you are a person in this world. But folks gotta know about this book because at its core, it creates strength and hope in others. 

Becoming was a beautifully written reflection on a life, though nowhere near done, was well lived. Splitting the book into three sections, she captured her life development with herself, her life development with a partner and young children, and her life development with the country. This book, the first I have read for pleasure in a long time, I found refreshing, often reading chapters in between readings for class. 

The beginning of her life could be characterized as light. The love she had for her family, her family for her, and the memories she shared were all full of joy. Her mother, stern but understanding, was a driving force throughout. Her father, a man who dealt with MS and various other related health issues, was a mentor and role model she spoke of with high esteem. Her brother, her best friend and fiercest cheerleader from day one, was one of my favorite characters. His name was Craig and he was in so many ways the person who pushed Michelle to be a planner, but also someone who was highly ambitious. Her memories of her childhood neighborhood in Chicago make you miss home. 

Her childhood and young adulthood shaped her to be a woman who was well rounded, strong, determined, loving, ambitious, and so much more. Her education at Princeton and Harvard were shaped by her class and race in major ways which gave her a lens to view the world she did not have when she attended school in a relatively diverse elementary, middle, and high school. She was able to have a complex understanding of class at a young age and that understanding clearly followed her into the work she took on later. 

I remember the love story she described between her and Barack. Their first kiss after an ice cream date made me feel giddy, like I had just heard the story of a friend in middle school having her first kiss. Sometimes I wonder what love means, and I think, among other things, moments where everything melts away are moments of love. Feeling the affection and love of another and feeling like you can find a way to make anything work. As described by Michelle Obama, the love between her and Barack melted away any anxieties either of them had which helped them both become fuller versions of themselves. 

Michelle and Barack found a way to make their love work, much of their lives shaped by his own ambition. Their lives and loves overlapped in a way that allowed them to share values that supported social equity, but different enough that each of them found a sense of self in their own work. Their children brought great joy to them. Michelle’s story about having a miscarriage was powerful, showing women through the written word that it does happen, it is painful, and it is not your fault. Her reflections on motherhood were also meaningful, making me wonder and think about what I might someday be facing as a mother. I think her balance between work and parenting was realistic, and it was something that helped me see that life as something that could work and be meaningful for me as well. 

What ended up sticking out to me about the final set of chapters was how Michelle brought up events that I remembered. Listening to her reflect, I too was able to look back on various times in our country’s recent history where I felt broken and moved, joyous and inspired. Her reflections on these moments were meaningful and often brought me on the verge of tears. For her, I am thankful, because those reflections helped me to feel once again more connected and thankful to my country after feeling very disillusioned after the last election. This was a wonderful book and I am so glad I was able to find the time to read it. 

Please read it. It will hit you right in the feels (in a good way).