Songs for the Struggling Artist


Ready for the Fight
January 16, 2017, 1:04 am
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

After November, I cowered, I shook, I felt defeated and demoralized but I have turned a corner. I walk through the streets of NYC differently. I move like a truck. I don’t get out of men’s way. I take up space like it’s mine.

I wore army green on New Year’s Eve because I was ready for battle this year. I am on notice to fight for every one of my rights, the rights of others and even the rights we haven’t got yet.

Then – listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the host read her feminist version of the famous battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and I cried like a baby. It was such a rallying cry. Particularly the first line about closing up the wall with our female dead. And I realized that in all of history, we’ve never had a speech like this for us. (At least not that I know of…) There’s never been a “Let’s storm the bastille” sort of battle for women. For all of history, women have borne the brunt of rape, of domestic violence, of domestic murder, of honor killings, of female infanticide and genital mutilation and we have never had a war over it.

And I’m not saying we should. I’m generally opposed to war. But…to imagine a world wherein we call upon our sisters to come together and go over the breach…well it’s a very different world than we’ve always lived in. We may need more models like this – a female Henry V – Imperator Furiousa liberating other women in Mad Max, Katniss Everdeen defending her sister in the Hunger Games.
I’m usually not a big fan of “Let’s re-write Shakespeare” but in this case, I make an exception, as this feminist breach undid me. And I needed undoing. And now I’m ready for the fight.

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My Hagification has Begun
January 5, 2017, 1:18 am
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , , , , ,

The patriarchy won big time on November 8th, 2016. Enough voters and enough Russian hackers wanted the patriarchy to win. Enough people were like – “Yeah, the primal expression of the patriarchy is for us!” and voted for it. It’s pretty fucking awful but the patriarchy won. And I hate it. It made me cry big sloppy tears. And I was paralyzed and horrified and ready to hide in a basement for as long as was necessary.

But then a switch got flipped. And I realized that just by existing, I am a middle finger to the patriarchy. The guy who won the contest is the straight up Id of the patriarchy and he has a lot of opinions about how women should look. As does the culture, in general. I do not fit most of his criteria and am therefore, like his opponent in the election, nasty. And like many of my sisters in the fight, I am embracing my nastiness. Because when the Patriarch Elect called Clinton a nasty woman we all knew what he meant. And we all knew that for him, nasty woman was redundant because “woman” means nasty to him, just by itself. We know he means women are gross, with body fat and hair and blood coming out of our where-evers. He’s offended by any woman who isn’t aesthetically pleasing to him. He is on record on this point going back decades.

All my life, I’ve struggled with the feeling that my body wasn’t culturally acceptable – that I was not pleasing to look at in one way or another and therefore failing at being a woman. That’s what the patriarchy wanted me to feel. That feeling is, in fact, what entire industries are devoted to invoking. The patriarchy wants me to spend all my time shaping my body –with Spanx, with diets, with razors, with creams, with make-up – in order to make it the most palatable for the patriarchs. It wants me to spend all my money on clothes, on weight-loss products, on cosmetics. It wants me in heels. It wants me in hair and make-up for a couple of hours every day.

So now my body becomes a signal. My body, my body hair, my clothes, are all a signal that I do not comply. Now more than ever. I’m thinking of going full-on hag to really magnify the effect. I want to develop 12 warts and some super gnarled fingers. Maybe I’ll start wearing a pointy black hat. I will no longer be aesthetically pleasing for the patriarchy. I am interested in full-on hag-i-fication.

All my life, some part of me was still struggling to please the patriarchy. Will the patriarchy still like me with this haircut? Am I shaving my legs correctly for the Man? Is this the right dress for the patriarchy?

(Side bar: I am going to start adding “for the patriarchy” to my fortune cookies – replacing the standard “in bed” – so I’ll see such fortunes as “You will soon go on a great journey. For the Patriarchy.” You can play, too! It’ll be fun!)

This new regime is a Shit Show but its extreme patriarchal nonsense is such that it has finally liberated me from some of the last bits of the Patriarchal Pleaser in my subconscious. I don’t care if the patriarchy likes me. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. I would take it as a point of pride at this point to be dismissed by the patriarchy. I am done cultivating my image. I am done worrying if I’m pretty enough, if I’m fitting in, if I am aesthetically pleasing. I had decades of that and now…I am embracing my inner hag. And she is pissed. And NASTY.

And I am not alone in this feeling, I have recently discovered. After I wrote the first draft of this post, I read an article by Madeline Davies in Jezebel, essentially pointing to the same impulse. Women on the street, the sorts of whom have never given me a second look, are suddenly smiling at me and nodding. I think we recognize each other now – the dissidents – the patriarchal warriors. When I go out into the world now, I strap on my beat-up boots (Snaps Missing; 4, Fucks Given: 0) and feel like I’m gearing up for battle. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never wear lipstick again or that I’ll never wear that sexy black dress. But it does mean that I’m only putting that stuff on for me. The patriarchy can go fuck itself.

The good news is that I can fight the patriarchy just by existing, just by walking around in my body. And for every “fat bitch” that gets shouted at me, just for taking up space in the world, I am now receiving nods and solidarity from my fellow warriors in equal measure. It’s a fight out there, for sure – but I am hagged up, geared up and ready to go. The patriarchy may have won this round but the fight’s not over.

 

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Why I Started Podcasting

You guys. I love podcasts. I can’t call myself a vanguard podcast listener (I wasn’t really in the very first wave of podcast listening) – but I caught on pretty quickly and have been listening for about a decade. And for many of those years, most of the voices in my podcast feed were male. They were the hosts of public radio shows or men interviewing (mostly) men.

In 2012, in the midst of my feminist snap (hat-tip to Sara Ahmed for that term,) I began to really feel the imbalance. I found I was worn out from listening to, almost exclusively, men so I went on a search for women’s voices to include in my podcast feed. That search led me to the Broad Experience (which I love) and for a while things settled there. But then about a year ago, there was a shift…suddenly all the new shows in my feed were hosted by women. And it looks as though I have Public Radio to thank for that.

The fact is, 80% of the podcasts in my feed were public radio shows that were also podcasts. And because Public Radio is publicly funded, they apparently, at some point noticed the imbalance themselves (or savvy listeners wrote in and told them) and took it upon themselves to right the ship by investing in female podcasters. One of my favorite podcasts, Note to Self, is apparently a result of that direct action. The host, Manoush Zomorodi has been talking about this lately in the press and it’s made me really appreciate that we have a publicly funded media that can invest in this sort of thing.

Also, in hearing and reading Zomorodi talk about it, I got inspired to add my own voice to the mix. In the years when I was desperate to hear a female voice on a podcast, I thought I SHOULD start a podcast. Obviously there was a need. But I didn’t want to and I didn’t feel inspired about it. Then Zomorodi started talking about the development of her own voice on her podcast, on the change from being an authoritative, impartial reporter voice to a quirky human one and I thought, “Well, I am a quirky human. Maybe it’s time to do it.”
Simultaneously, I was realizing that even the people who like me the most weren’t able to keep up with reading my blog and I thought, “Maybe people would like to hear it instead. It would mean they could “read” my blog while washing the dishes or whatever.” And so I dove in – at first only for my patrons on Patreon – and then for the public. Some people like it. Some people don’t. Like anything.

But I am glad to be a part of what Zomorodi is calling a feminist revolution. I mean, yeah, if podcasting is a feminist act, then it feels important to add my voice. Both my writerly voice and my ACTUAL voice. Welcome to the podcast revolution. You can subscribe to Songs for the Struggling Artist on iTunes. Or Soundcloud.

So this is about the feminist act of podcasting, yes. The feminist revolution. Allelujah. But also – it’s about how important public funding is. The new trend in lady podcasters happened because public radio is public. Being beholden to the public, publicly funded media has more motivation to right its inequities. I would like for more of our arts to be public. What’s happened in public radio and, by extension, podcasting, is a direct result of a concentrated effort to improve a gender imbalance. We need the same in theatre, in dance, in visual art, in film, in writing… in everything. And we need a concentrated effort through public funding to right all the other inequities as well, to increase racial diversity, for example. Or increase visibility for disability. Public funding for everything. That would be the revolution that would make the revolution possible.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



My Feminist Blindspot
August 14, 2016, 11:20 pm
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , ,

You guys. You know I cannot even look at a single-panel cartoon without seeing it through a feminist lens. It’s built into my eyes. I cannot not see it. But I realized recently that I’d been staring at a sexist situation for months, maybe even years, without really seeing it. It was in my blind spot. And that blind spot was the thing right in front of me. For me, it was my workplace.

The situation is that there are two “senior” employees who make a good deal more money than the rest of us and the two senior employees are the two men and the rest of us are all women. The owners of the business are all men and also make more money, of course. It’s a pretty clear cut case of gender imbalance but I totally missed it. Why? Because it is close to me. And I know all the “legitimate” reasons that it is so. I understand the personalities at play. I understand the seniority as well as the layers of dysfunction that factor in. It all just seemed like “the way it is” And “the way it is” is usually the blind spot. We cannot see how structures fall into the usual sexist models because they each have their own logic, their own, “Of course it happens that way,” their own legitimacy.

I was absolutely floored to realize how long this structure had been in place without my noticing. It took other women in the organization to point it out to me. And I may not be a professional feminist but I am pretty close…and I missed it.

What else is in my blind spot?
What else is hiding in plain sight?
We all have our blind spots and usually they are the things we see the “perfectly reasonable” explanation of – but then you pull back to look at it in wider context – poof! not so reasonable anymore.

This is why it’s important to talk about Institutional Sexism (and Racism and ableism and so on) rather than just focusing on the individual situations. One can explain away individual stories almost every time, especially when they’re sitting in our blind spots, which is almost always what’s right in front of us.

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In which I Turn my Feminist Lens on Legally Blonde, the Musical

After referencing Legally Blonde the Musical in numerous posts, I will, finally, at my readers’ request, give you a full on Songs for the Struggling Artist review of my least favorite musical.

I will begin by saying that I loved the film of Legally Blonde. I didn’t expect to, but I did. The film is surprisingly feminist. I say surprising because the lead, Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) is not your typical feminist heroine. At the start, she’s the kind of woman most of us feminists steer clear of. She’s shallow and boy crazy and her main interest seems to be shopping. She’s an ultra femme icon. She goes to law school in order to win her boyfriend back, for crying out loud. But we love her and she grows and deepens and she’s one of the few heroines I’ve ever seen who wins by leaning into her femininity. Elle Woods doesn’t transform who she is or what she loves, she just comes to value herself and her substance more.

I’m interested in learning how something I love can become something I hate, so l re-watched both the film and the musical to see what possibly could have gone wrong.

The musical’s Elle Woods is similarly obsessed with pink, similarly ultra femme – though a lot less human. In the film, her break up truly breaks her up. She cries. Spends a week in bed. In the musical, her devastation is about 10 seconds long and is represented by the wearing of a bathrobe.

In the film, other characters reflect the way we, the audience, might feel about her. They think that she’s making terrible decisions. They think she’s shallow and superficial. This helps us root for Elle. She becomes an underdog in a climate of naysayers. In the musical, everyone is on Elle’s side. They all think she’s neat and that she always does the right thing. This helps make me think they’re all pretty dumb.

The music in the film is mostly empowering indie lady rock-pop of the era. The musical’s songs are bland bubble gummy musical. It’s like a tween wrote a “rock” musical in the 80s without any pop hooks. It has the pink without the depth or the irony.

Fundamentally, though, none of that made me hate the musical as much as I do until the scene where her colleague (and ultimately her new love interest) makes her throw away all of her pink stuff. He essentially comes in, kills the characters’ identity so she can buckle down and be the serious person he wants her to become. He sings a song about how she needs to change.

This is the crux of where the musical veers away from the film. The musical has Elle replace one man’s agenda (her ex boyfriend Warner) with another’s (Emmett.) She moves from being Warner’s ideal woman to following Emmett’s instructions. The film is about self-determination – about Elle becoming herself. The musical is about a lady who gets the guy by becoming a lawyer.

There is a moment early on in the film in which we see Elle fully understand that she was never going to be able to bend herself into the woman Warner wanted her to be. She gets it. She says so. (“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?”) And then she decides to become a good lawyer for herself. It is step one to finding her self. Step two is when Elle gets the news that she’s gotten the prestigious internship. She sees her name on the list and the responds with the gloriously simple line, “Me!” The camera pulls in, the music swells.

 

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This is Elle getting a sense of herself, seizing it and enjoying it. The film’s story kicks into gear here. Elle builds on the moment by going up to Warner and his new girlfriend and saying, “Do you remember when we spent those four amazing hours in the hot tub after winter formal?” He stammers, “Yea…No.” and she replies with, “This is so much better than that!” That is, the excitement of succeeding in her new career has suddenly surpassed the thing that was driving her life before. She’s experiencing self-fulfillment in a brand new way.

Neither of these moments appears in the musical. There is no moment of “Me!”

In both the musical and the film, Elle goes with her friend, Paulette, to retrieve Paulette’s dog from her ex-boyfriend’s trailer. But in the musical, Elle brings Emmett along. And instead of Elle getting the idea to use her new lawyering skills herself, she gets a little helpful hint from Emmett. Which once again undercut’s Elle’s sense of self-agency and discovery.

It’s not as if the film version of Emmett doesn’t help Elle. He does. But he’s helpful in a very particular way. He mostly just reminds her of who she is. And he recommends channeling the “power of the blonde.” (Blonde here being a symbol of Elle’s Elle-ness, her pink-ness, her femininity.)

In the musical, after Emmett’s “Get Serious, Throw Away All This Pink Shit” number, he sings that “maybe some wise man told her” to do the things he’s proud of her for. What he’s proud of, by the way, is her doing what he told her to do. So his pride in her is essentially pride in himself. Gross.

The film walks the line with some stereotypes but the musical just steps right over the line and leans on in to them. On stage, we get rich princes from the Far East, a sassy black judge, Latin lovers and jokes about women going to the bathroom together. In the film, there is a women’s studies PhD student. She makes suggestions like changing the “semester” to “ovester” for feminist reasons. The character is a stereotype but she is amusing in her specificity. As a feminist, I recognize that I am the target of this joke and I think it’s funny. In the musical, this character just becomes a generic lesbian who is there to become the butt of many jokes. I do not find them funny. There is one joke I liked in the musical. (“Subtext” by Calvin Klein) That’s it. But you know. . .okay…stuff gets broader in a musical. Shit happens. I know.

But a major theme from the film that I really miss in the musical is Elle’s commitment to sisterhood. She’s a sorority sister, yes. But she’s committed to helping women in the broader sense. She’s explicit about honoring her bond with her fellow women. And Warner pushes her to abandon it. He says, “Who cares about the sisterhood? Think about yourself.” She doesn’t though. She stays committed to her community. In a story about self-determination, this development points to a way of thinking about the self that includes caring for others. I love that she eventually includes a woman in that sisterhood who has been nothing but mean to her throughout the movie. Those two women, who come from opposing corners and become allies, have a really compelling relationship. This development is not in the musical.

Also cut from the musical is the one female mentor that Elle has in the film. (Hmm, vanishing older women? Nothing sexist to see here, move along please!) The mentor (played by Holland Taylor) is a pivotal figure. She is the woman Elle fears at the beginning and is saved by at the end. There is no older woman to learn from in the musical. The sisterhood is reduced to a one joke idea of Elle’s “Greek Chorus” – a concept that seems to only exist for the fun of saying that they’re a Greek Chorus. Get it? They’re sorority sisters? So they’re Greek? Like Ancient Greek drama? Get it? Anyway.

I don’t want to imply that Legally Blonde, the Film is a beacon of feminist thought. It does include the cringe worthy “Bend and snap” moment. But the musical takes that uncomfortable minute of the film and milks it so as to induce a week’s worth of cringe.

I don’t imagine the creators of the musical set out to create an insufferable sexist mess. The women who made it must have felt they were being true to the source material; a lot of the dialogue in the musical comes straight out of the film. But something happened in that act of translation.

Partly, I think, it is the medium. It is very difficult to get the complex emotion of a film close-up in a musical. A musical encourages a broadness that can kill any sense of irony. But I also imagine that a lot of this happened on the way to the Broadway stage. I have heard enough stories about Broadway development  to be able to imagine producer meetings wherein, bit by bit, the heart of the original story got cut away. (“What about the male lead? What does he want? Let’s get a song where he gets involved! Give her some advice! Women love when men give them advice!”) With no one with a PhD in Women’s Studies to keep them honest, a fun feminist romp of a film about self-determination got turned into a sexist sitcom show with songs.

What I love about the movie is the way it makes me examine my own prejudices. It helps me see the depth in a character I would usually dismiss. The musical does the opposite. It takes people I think of as shallow and superficial and shows me how shallow superficial people become shallow superficial lawyers. Who also sing and dance. And while this may be realistic (there are shallow, superficial lawyers out there) it doesn’t really make for a meaningful night in the theatre. At least not for this Women’s Studies geek.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Ladies Man

I saw an adorable baby toddling through a cafe wearing a t-shirt that said, “Ladies Man.” The baby was cute and his t-shirt was amusing because he’s just a baby. But then I got uncomfortable. With a little consideration, this kid’s t-shirt felt like such a bald reinforcement of patriarchal ideals.

There is something complimentary about being a ladies’ man. It implies a man who seduces a lot of women, which is why it’s funny on a baby. But there is no reverse of this idea. You can’t be a man’s woman – or a gentleman’s lady – you label yourself like that, you start to look like a prostitute. A man who seduces a lot of women is admired – a woman who seduces a lot of men is just a slut. The closest equivalent for a girl that I could think of that MIGHT have a positive sheen if you looked at it in the right light would be Temptress. And can you imagine how horrible a baby t-shirt with “Temptress” on it would be?

It makes me think about something Caitlin Moran talked about in an interview with herself at the Free Library of Philadelphia. One of her motivations for writing her book How to Build a Girl was to find a way to celebrate female sexual exploration and she found that she couldn’t find a way to make “slut” or “slag” sound positive – so she invented two new ideas, “Lady Sex Pirate” and “Swashfuckler.”

But I would not want these on a baby’s t-shirt either.

I guess in the absence of equal opportunities for joke baby t-shirts – it might be best not to reinforce gender norms at all at that age.

I mean, I know that kid can’t read his own t-shirt and to him, it doesn’t matter at all – but I know I looked at him and tried to see behaviors that might explain his t-shirt. Was he a particularly flirtatious baby, for example? Did he toddle more toward women than men?

And there’s a way that, even as a joke, the people around a kid in a ladies’ man t-shirt begin to give that kid an idea of himself with just that conception.

One of the ways we learn and decide who we are is by the way people interact with us. Put a kid in a ladies’ man t-shirt, you may end up with a ladies’ man, for better or worse.

Does the training to see men as sexual conquerors and women as objects NEED to start with babies? I guess it does, actually. That’s how we GET gender norms. But, it does make my skin crawl a little bit to watch a cute kid toddle around in a joke that teaches him and teaches the people around him to see him as Don Juan. That’s the kind of joke that can stick.

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