Formation

Dear Sherina,

You know as well as I do that I’m not really a sports person. I did, however, tune into the Superbowl halftime show last week. I thought that Beyonce’s performance was pretty standard for what you can usually expect from her. It seems some people thought otherwise. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani dismissed it as being anti-law enforcement. While I did notice the definite black empowerment theme of her performance, I certainly didn’t find it to be anti-police.

I was intrigued by his comments and by the comments of others who thought Beyonce took things too far, so I decided to watch the music video for the song behind the controversy, ‘Formation’. As a Beyonce fan I may be a little biased, but I thought the video was phenomenal. At first glance, the viewer definitely takes note of the subtle themes being explored while she sings “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making”. After watching it several times, I had a page full of notes on what I took from the video. She managed to get several themes across; let me explore a few.

The video opens with her standing atop a New Orleans police cruiser sinking in a flood of water, while a voice says “what happened after New Orleans?” The video further explores treatment of African-Americans, black culture and police brutality. Beyonce’s own southern ancestry is explored through an African-American lens – something we don’t often see. Afros are celebrated as well; the vast majority of the women shown have one.

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At the end of the video we see a young African-American boy in a hoodie dancing in front of police officers. This could be interpreted as a reference to the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. If there were any doubts about one of the themes of the video, a shot of a graffitied wall which reads “STOP SHOOTING US” pretty much clears them up. The video ends with a shot of Beyonce drowning on top of the same New Orleans police cruiser shown at the beginning.

A lot of folks were upset that Beyonce chose the Superbowl, which is a “family show” to share her message. Many are upset that she even released the video at all. “Why does everything have to be so political?” They ask. I urge those people to keep this in mind; according to The Guardian, unarmed black people are twice as likely to be killed by law enforcement as unarmed white people in the U.S.

No one is saying that all law enforcement officials are bad, because they aren’t. They are the ones who put their lives on the line to keep us safe and we are eternally grateful for it. However, the fact that black people are disproportionately affected by police brutality still needs to be addressed and an event that was watched by an average of 111.9 million people seems to be a good place to start.

There were many who felt uncomfortable after hearing this song and watching the video. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. Change is never comfortable.

What were your thoughts after watching ‘Formation’?

Ceanray

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Dear Ceanray,

I am also not a sports person. In fact, a day after the Superbowl, one of my friends mentioned the Denver Broncos and I said that they weren’t in the superbowl at all (when they actually won it). I digress… I did not watch the Superbowl, nor the halftime performances. I did, however, hear quite a bit about the show – specifically, Beyonce’s performance.

Many people praised her performance, pulling out the crown emoji because she is #QueenBey; but many others, as you said, thought she took things too far. People who believed her performance was racist protested outside the NFL headquarters, and took to social media to share their disdain for Beyonce. Was their disdain justified? I, like you, don’t believe it was.

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I watched Beyonce’s performance on YouTube and read through the lyrics of Formation, and I couldn’t see what came across as “racist” or “anti-police”. The song is about a serious issue, and that many people choose to remain ignorant of that issue is frightening. There are, as you mention, a disproportionate number of black people killed by police officers. I don’t know how anyone could look at the statistics and evidence and not come to the conclusion that something needs to change.

Part of the problem, I think, is that too often people equate fighting for black rights to being against white people. Some people try to change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. All lives do matter, but that’s not the point of the hashtag. The point is that black people have been seriously oppressed throughout history and still face inequities today.

I completely agree with you: change is not comfortable. People are entitled to their opinions – and when the topic is Beyonce, there are lots. However, I believe it is important to look not at what is a comfortable, convenient opinion but what is actually a truthful reflection of the dire needs of a marginalized group in society.

I applaud Beyonce for using the platform of the Superbowl (and her signature dance moves) to speak out about police brutality and black culture. On behalf of Beyonce fans everywhere, let’s get in formation and take a stand.

Sherina

Religious Representation Online

Dear Sherina,

On this blog, you and I have previously discussed Youtubers and their influence. Recently, I’ve discovered a new favourite. A half-English, half-Egyptian fashion designer and blogger by the name of  Dina Torkia. With a sizeable online following which includes 316,000 Youtube subscribers, she has made quite a name for herself in the Muslim fashion and beauty world.  Her channel is filled with videos ranging from hijab/turban tutorials, lookbooks, makeup tutorials to DIY clothing tutorials. As a devout Muslim woman, there are certain guidelines she follows when it comes to dress. She is a ‘hijabi’, which means that she does not show her hair and often wears a headscarf in a traditional or turban style. As she explains it, the concept of ‘hijab’ is not simply putting a scarf on your head. Rather, it guides how interact with others and how you represent yourself to the world.

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Dina is such an upbeat, outspoken and downright hilarious individual that it’s hard to imagine that she would be on the receiving end of negativity. The majority of the comments on her Youtube videos are positive, however it’s hard not to notice the amount of criticism she gets. The criticism doesn’t often come from non-Muslims, but from others within her faith community. They claim that she is  ‘misrepresenting’ Islam and that she ought to be ashamed of herself for wearing makeup – among other things.

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I would argue the contrary. As someone who is not well-educated on religion, I admit that before I started watching her I knew very little about Islam. Her channel is not a religious education channel, but because her faith is such a big part of her life you do learn a few things. Since I started following her Youtube and Instagram, I feel as though I’ve learned more about modest clothing guidelines, Muslim holidays, religious practices and everyday Islamic terms. To give you an example, when she’s on her channel discussing a future project, she might say “inshallah it all goes well”. I was curious as to what inshallah meant, so I looked it up and translated roughly it means “if God wills it” or “God willing”.

I feel like with all of the misconceptions that surround Muslim people and the Islamic faith, it’s so important to have people like Dina out there to shatter them. She, in my humble opinion, does a fantastic job of representing the diversity within her religion.

What are your thoughts?

Ceanray

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Dear Ceanray,

After reading your letter I watched some of Dina’s videos, and I completely agree with you; it’s so hard to imagine how she could receive negative comments. I found Dina’s channel incredibly enlightening, as I, like you, knew very little about Islam before watching her videos. Even from watching a Q&A video, I became more educated. I think it’s amazing that we are able to learn more about a religion through YouTube!

I also agree with you that Dina’s channel is all the more important not just because it provides education, but because it shatters some of the negative myths that surround Muslim people. I’m sure you remember the recent controversy in Canada about women wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. The issue blossomed into a debate not just about wearing the niqab when becoming a Canadian citizen, but in general.

Stephen Harper, our then Prime Minister, said with regards to the debate about the niqab that “[the Muslim] culture is anti-women”. Many Canadians protested this statement, because we knew it was a lie which was simply feeding the culture of fear that has been created around people of a certain faith. Some people, however, agreed with Harper’s sediment. Likely, those people didn’t know any Muslim women, or Muslim people, so they accepted his statement at face value.

We shouldn’t need proof that the Muslim culture is not anti-women – we should be able to realize such generalizing statements are ludicrous and inaccurate – but unfortunately we do. Fortunately, we have amazing people like Dina Torkia who help to set the record straight.

Sherina

Why Hollywood Needs More Hermione Grangers

Dear Sherina,

In previous letters, you and I have discussed the lack of positive female role models available for young women. Current Hollywood films often portray women in ways they believe will appeal to male audiences, while providing the public with female characters who often have little emotional depth or desires beyond landing their man. Luckily, there has been a recent surge in films such as the Oscar-nominated flick Wild, that have female protagonists who are well-rounded and interesting. Unfortunately, a common narrative of many action films involves the handsome, muscular superhero who saves the day and rescues the damsel in distress.

This past weekend while lying in bed with a nasty cold, I was trying to decide which movie to watch. I realized that I hadn’t seen a Harry Potter movie in years – so I chose to watch Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first installment in the series. As I watched this movie and two others, I made a few observations. For example; there are no one-dimensional female main characters in any of these films. With an assortment of women ranging from sadistic psychopaths to quick witted heroines, J.K. Rowling has proven herself to be able to create a universe in which strong male and female characters coexist.

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One of these characters, (and a personal favourite of mine) Hermoine Granger, is not your stereotypical smart girl. She is clever, creates solutions to life-threatening problems under pressure while, simply put, demonstrating that her two best friends (Harry and Ron) wouldn’t survive for a minute without her. Characters like Hermoine are a breath of fresh air in a digital world wherein women aren’t valued for their intellect but rather their ability to look good while half-naked.

J.K. Rowling perfectly sums up the power dynamics in the Harry Potter series in this quote; “What’s interesting about the wizarding world is when you take physical strength out of the equation, a woman can fight just the same as a man can fight. A woman can do magic just as powerfully as a man can do magic.”

Let’s continue to even out the playing field,

Ceanray

Dear Ceanray,

I absolutely adore the Harry Potter series, and I completely agree that JK Rowling did a fantastic job creating strong characters of both genders. Hermione was always my favourite character, and I think a large part of the reason why I liked her so much was that I could relate to her.

I saw myself reflected in her actions – her having read the course books ahead of time, and helping other people with her knowledge (like when she first meets Harry on the train to Hogwarts and uses a spell to fix his glasses). What I love about Hermione is that she was never afraid to stand up for herself. She endured some teasing from her classmates for being so smart, but eventually her classmates learned to respect her because she stood her ground and never stopped being the first to raise her hand or give the answer in class.

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Hermione is an amazing role model for young girls – as is the actress who plays her, Emma Watson. Hollywood is definitely improving in this regard, but I think it still has a long way to go; not just in terms of female role models, but in terms of all kinds of role models.

A few weeks ago when the Oscar nominees were announced people were outraged, and it wasn’t because their favourite movie hadn’t been nominated. It was because the nominees were predominantly white. There is actually a protest planned for this reason.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson – head of the LA Urban Policy Roundtable Group – said, “…the message is very simple: you [Hollywood] don’t reflect America, your industry doesn’t reflect America. Women, Hispanics, African-Americans, people of colour (are) invisible in Hollywood.”

Hollywood needs more Hermione Grangers – more characters who defy stereotypes of all kinds and who are otherwise unrepresented. Maybe we can persuade JK Rowling to write another children’s series so more great role models can be created.

Sherina

Fabletters on Strong Female Role Models in the Media (Or Lack of)

Dear Sherina,

The media is part of our everyday lives, whether it be on television or social media. We are constantly being fed this idea of what a woman should look like and how she should act, which leaves me wondering where I’m expected to find myself among all the confusion. Finding strong female role models in the women in my family has never been challenging. My mom, my aunts and my grandmothers inspire me constantly to push myself and the limits of what I can accomplish. Finding strong female role models in the media is a completely different matter.

The media tells us to be fit – not too skinny, but not too heavy either. We should have shiny, bouncy hair as seen in shampoo commercials, flawless skin and our face should be blemish-free at all times. We must dress to impress men (and occasionally our female friends, but never ourselves). Our clothing must flatter our “womanly” bodies, but cannot be too revealing (or else you’re labeled a slut), but not too modest either (because we might get mistaken for our grandmothers).

All of these messages that we’re faced with on a daily basis leave me with questions that I fear may remain unanswered. How are young women like us supposed to form an idea as to what it means to be a woman, when the media presents womanhood as a mainly superficial quest?

These questions brought back the memory of a conversation I had with some friends in middle school. At the time we were discussing what we wanted to be when we grew up. Some of my friends had ambitions to become teachers, nurses, famous singers and so on. One friend spoke up and said “my mom told me to take care of my looks, because if I marry a rich man he can take care of me and I won’t have to work”. This statement shocked and saddened me on so many levels, 12 year old girls should know that the sky’s the limit in terms of what they can achieve. Men are nice but not necessary in the pursuit of a happy and fulfilled life.

A few days ago, I watched Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations on achieving equal rights for girls and women all over the planet. I was inspired by her determination to help spread the message of equality while admitting that she was incredibly nervous to deliver her speech. Her ability to say, “hey! I’m a celebrity but that doesn’t mean that giving this speech doesn’t make me incredibly nervous!” stands out to me as someone who not only acknowledges her strength, but can recognize her weaknesses. This makes her someone who I would consider a strong female role model, among others.

What do you think?

Ceanray

Dear Ceanray,

I completely agree. I love your question “How are young women like us supposed to form an idea as to what it means to be a woman, when the media presents womanhood as a mainly superficial quest?”

As you know, I am a huge Taylor Swift fan (as evidenced by the fact that I am currently writing this while curled up in my Taylor Swift blanket, listening to her latest album 1989).

In an interview with Ellen a few years ago, Ellen was just dying to figure out who Taylor had dated. So, she put up a slideshow of men she had been linked to, gave her a bell, and told her to ring it whenever she saw someone she had dated. She was visibly uncomfortable with this, and it’s easy to see why. Plenty of other artists – for example, Tay’s friend Ed Sheeran – write and sing about romance; yet, Taylor Swift seems to be the only one ridiculed for it.

In October, Taylor made some headlines when she opened up about not wanting – or needing – a boyfriend. She said, “I just stopped dating people, because it meant a lot to me to set the record straight – that I do not need some guy around in order to get inspiration, in order to make a great record, in order to live my life, in order to feel okay about myself. I wanted to show my fans the same thing.”

Taylor Swift is a fantastic role model for young girls, and yet I feel like the media is trying to stop her from being this. It seems crazy, that they would discourage a strong female role model, but in a twisted way it kind of makes sense; their money comes from the superficial things they sell to us, the new mascara and the new shampoo that we need to purchase to make ourselves fit their idea of a women. Having a strong female role model means that girls feel more secure in who they are; and this means that they will not give in to what the media so desperately wants.

I believe there are two sides to every issue, and I think the problem here is that as teenage girls, we are only being shown one side of a role model. So, going back to your question: what can we do?

I think we have to create our own role models: you mentioned your mom, aunts, and grandmothers and they are great role models because they are not constructed by the media. They are real. I think it is incredibly important to value our own role models, and view the ones society presents to us with a critical eye (as we are doing now).

The Taylor Swift song I am currently listening to (New Romantics) has a lyric “life is just a classroom”. Life essentially is a classroom – we can learn so much. It just depends who we decide to learn from.

Let’s make the sky the limit,

Sherina