10 Movies Showing the Evolution of Gender Equality in Hollywood

People say that films are sometimes depictions of the society and time in which they were made. This is especially applicable for society’s view of women. How particular films depict women really shows how people at that time embrace feminist ideas, and more generally, women. In this article, I am going to introduce 10 movies that really show how audiences, or Hollywood as an institution, think about female characters in films. 

Legally Blonde (2001) 

The first film is ‘Legally Blonde’, starring Reese Witherspoon as the lead character. Most people watched this film as a teenager, especially women aspiring to become lawyers. Many would say that this is clearly a feminist film, and a huge step for Hollywood to depict woman as strong, independent and critically minded. 

Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (2001). (Source: IMDB)

However, when we pay closer attention to the details of the film, we clearly see that the film is actually filled with stereotypes about women. For example, women like the colour pink, chasing love being the main goal in a woman’s life and investing in fashion and beauty as the second mind goal in a woman’s life. Although the film did try to attack the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype, the other stereotypes about women demonstrates that audiences and Holloywood depict women as very different from men. This clearly shows that Hollywood is still a long way from achieving gender equality in script writing and character creation. 

Iron Jawed Angels (2004), The Stepford wives (1975, 2004), North country (2005)

Then we have ‘Iron Jawed Angels’, starring Hilary Swank, ‘The Stepford wives’, starring Nicole Kidman and ‘North Country’, starring Charlize Theron as the lead. I expect fewer young people to have watched these films, as they are made in a nostalgic style, reminiscent of post-World War Two films. 

A common feature of these films is that, while Hollywood are placing more attention onto women’s issues, these issues are mostly centered on women being suppressed. The Stepford wives featured women being controlled by men and technology, being forced into conforming to traditional stereotypes of being good wives and mothers. Both ‘Iron Jawed Angels’ and ‘North Country’ are documentary films. The former featured female suffragists’ struggles during the pre-post wars times, the latter featured women being harassed and discriminated in the workplace during a time when people started hiring women to work in traditionally male dominated jobs. Whether it is being suppressed by men, the system or politics, these films have a common theory saying that if films are about women, it should be about how women are being suppressed and how women are fighting against the suppression. While this is a good start to letting people pay attention to women’s suppression, from a modern feminist perspective, these films inevitably depicted women as being defined by their disadvantage and therefore as victims. 

Hidden Figures (2016) 

Then comes ‘Hidden Figures’. This is said to be a huge breakthrough for female characters. As even though female characters are still being discriminated against and suppressed, female characters are finally being depicted as having the same and even higher intellectual level as the other sex. Another breakthrough is that this ‘female-centered’ film is made in a way that targets both male and female audiences. ‘Hidden Figures’ demonstrates that ‘female-centered’ films can be shown on the big screen and the characters be taken seriously; female characters can be judged by the same standards and for the same qualities as their male counterparts. The film also begins to explore the duality of oppression through discussion of African-American women, something rarely depicted in Hollywood films. 

Wonder Woman (2017) 

‘Wonder Woman’ is always included when talking about feminist film, and this is justified. The character and plot of Wonder Woman itself is empowering and encouraging for anyone. More importantly, Wonder Woman is the first woman hero character in a male-dominated ‘universe’ that is being taken as seriously as the lead male hero characters such as Superman and Batman. Most DC or Marvel female characters whose existence value are largely dependent on her male counterpart, such as Harley Quinn, Cat Woman and Batwoman, who are interesting mostly because of their relationship with the Joker and Batman. Unlike them, Wonder Woman is herself an icon and is an interesting character by herself. Also, the fact ‘Wonder Woman’ is filmed in a way that does not make a huge stir about a hero being a female shows that Hollywood is depicting female leads with other significant attributes than their gender. 

Bombshell (2019) 

Interestingly, ‘Bombshell’ stars Charlize Theron, who also played the suppressed, harassed female lead character in ‘North Country’ included above. Though both ‘Bombshell’ and ‘North Country’ featured women being sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace, obvious comparisons are observed. For example, support in society for the harassed female characters are more available in ‘Bombshell’. People are also less uncomfortable by claims of female characters being harassed in ‘Bombshell’. The most obvious improvement is that women are finally depicted not as weak, but strong, career driven, confident characters. The power to make a change and to help others are also totally placed in the hands of women themselves, instead of dependent on benevolence of male characters, such as the lawyer and one of the co-workers in ‘North Country’. An additional observation from the two films is that how women’s status has grown over the years can clearly be seen as both films are documentary films which featured real events of women’s struggle of their respective times. 

I care a lot (2020), Promisingly young woman (2020), Pieces of a woman (2021)

With the Marvel trend quieting down after ‘Avengers: Endgame’ in 2019, a film trend featuring smaller productions, clamer plots and women has started. There are films like ‘Bird of Preys’, starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn finally getting rid of her ties with the Joker, ‘I care a lot’, starring Rosamund Pike who also played Gone Girl in 2014 and ‘Promisingly young woman’, starring Carey Mulligan. These are, I would say, films with a more overt feminist message compared to it being more implicit in earlier films such as ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012), ‘Miss Sloane’ (2016) and ‘Lady Bird’ (2017), which had a feminist lead character but not a feminist plot. A trend of ‘clear feminist’ films, which all received huge accolades, shows that Hollywood is more confident in making gender equality films. This also shows that audiences are more accepting of strong feminists featured in films than in the past. I am confident to claim that had these films been shown 10 to 20 years ago, they would be criticized as “too radical”. Although, Hollywood still has a long way to go before reaching true gender equality and recognising the issues that intersect with feminism, such as sexuality, gender identity, race and class. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Diamonds, Best Friend or Mortal Enemy?

Diamonds symbolise love, wealth, and commitment to both the purchaser and the recipient, after all, they are known to be a woman’s best friend. Yet, the process of retrieving such a valuable commodity remains a battleground for those who work in the diamond mines. Alongside diamond production, the construction of worker exploitation, violence, and civil wars is generated proving that beauty is in fact, pain. 

The tale of the present-day diamond market emerged on the African continent, South Africa to be precise. The Democratic Republic of the Congo ranks fourth in the world when it comes to diamond production with 12 million carats being produced in 2020, the African region dominates the top 10 rankings with seven out of 54 countries acting as some of the world’s largest diamond producers.

Congolese workers searching for rough diamonds in mines in the south west region of Kasai in the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 9, 2015. (Credit: Lynsey Addario, Getty Images Reportage for Time Magazine)

The diamond trade contributes approximately $8.5 billion per year to Africa and Nelson Mandela has previously stated that the industry is “vital to the Southern African economy”. The wages of the diamond miners, however, do not reflect the value of this work and its contributions to the financial expansion of African countries. An estimated one million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day, an unlivable wage stooping below the extreme poverty line. Despite the significant revenues from the diamond industry, both through taxation and profit-sharing arrangements, governments often fail to re-invest these funds in local communities. The government in Angola receives about $150 million per year in diamond revenues yet conditions near major diamond mining projects are appalling. Public schools, water supply systems and health clinics are near non-existent. Many African countries are still healing from the impact of colonisation and are dealing with corruption, incompetence and weak political systems. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that governments fail to invest their diamond revenues productively. 

Adjacent to being excessively underpaid and overworked, miners endure work in exceptionally hazardous conditions often lacking safety equipment and the adequate tools for their role. Injuries are a likely possibility in the everyday life of a miner sometimes leading to fatality. The risk of landslides, mine collapses and a variety of other accidents is a constant fear. Additionally, diamond mining also contributes to public health problems since the sex trade flourishes in many diamond mining towns leading to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Children are considered an easy source of cheap labour and so they tend to be regularly employed in the diamond mining industry. One survey of diamond miners in the Lunda Norte province of Angola found that 46% of miners were between the ages of 5 and 16. Life as a diamond miner is full of hardship, and this appalling way of living is only heightened for younger kids who are more prone to injuries and accidents. Since most of these kids do not attend school, they tend to be pigeonholed into this way of life throughout adulthood, robbing them of their childhood and bright futures. 

African countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and Côte d’Ivoire have endured ferocious civil conflicts fuelled by diamonds. Diamonds that instigate such civil wars are often called “blood” diamonds as they intensify civil wars by financing militaries and rebel militias. Control over diamond rich territories causes rival groups to fight, resulting in tragic situations such as bloodshed, loss of life and disturbing human right abuses. 

Whilst purchasing diamonds from a conflict-free country such as Canada can buy you a clean conscience, you must not forget about the miners being violated every day for the benefit of others but never themselves. Just as we have the opportunity to choose fair trade foods benefitting the producers, consumers of one of the most valuable products one may ever own should not be left in the dark regarding the strenuous work of digging miners do behind the stage of glamour and wealth. A true fair trade certification process must be set in place through which miners are adequately awarded for their dedication and commitment to such a relentless industry, especially in countries that are still processing generational trauma that has been caused by dominating nations.

Lydia Benaicha, History in Politics Contributor

Does the Electoral College Serve the Democratic Process?

“It’s got to go,” asserted Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, when speaking of the electoral college in 2019 – reflecting a growing opposition to the constitutional process, which has been only heightened by the chaotic events of the past weeks. Rather than simply reiterating the same, prosaic arguments for the institution’s removal – the potential subversion the popular vote, the overwhelming significance of battleground states, the futility of voting for a third party, and so forth – this piece will consider the historical mentalities with which the electoral college was created in an effort to convey the ludicrous obsolescence of the institution in a twenty-first century democracy.  

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris preparing to deliver remarks about the U.S. economy in Delaware, 16 November 2020. (Credit: CNN)

In its essence, the system of electors stems from the patrician belief that the population lacked the intellectual capacity necessary for participation in a popular vote – Elbridge Gerry informing the Constitutional Convention, “the people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.” Over the past two hundred years, the United States has moved away from the early modern principles encouraging indirect systems of voting: for instance, the fourteenth amendment normalised the direct election of senators in 1913. It has also seen the electors themselves transition from the noble statesmen of the Framers’ vision, to the staunch party loyalists that they so greatly feared. In fact, the very institutions of modern political parties had no place in the Framers’ original conception, with Alexander Hamilton articulating a customary opposition to the, “tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.” This optimistic visualisation of a factionless union soon proved incompatible with the realities of electioneering and required the introduction of the twelfth amendment in 1803, a response to the factious elections of 1796 and 1800. Yet, while early pragmatism was exercised over the issue of the presidential ticket, the electoral college remains entirely unreformed at a time when two behemothic parties spend billions of dollars to manipulate its outcome in each presidential election cycle. 

The Constitutional Convention was, in part, characterised by a need for compromise and it is these compromises, rooted in the specific political concerns of 1787, that continue to shape the system for electing the nation’s president. With the struggle between the smaller and larger states causing, in the words of James Madison, “more embarrassment, and a greater alarm for the issue of the Convention than all the rest put together,” the electoral college presented a means of placating the smaller states by increasing their proportional influence in presidential elections. While it may have been necessary to appease the smaller states in 1787, the since unmodified system still ensures voters in states with smaller populations and lower turnout rates, such as Oklahoma, hold greater electoral influence than those in states with larger populations and higher rates of turnout, such as Florida. Yet, it was the need for compromise over a more contentious issue – the future of American slavery – that compelled the introduction of the electoral college further still. Madison recognised that “suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States” and that “the substitution of electors obviated this difficulty.” The indirect system of election, combined with a clause that counted three of every five slaves towards the state population, thus granted the slaveholding section of the new republic much greater representation in the election of the president than an alternative, popular vote would have permitted. At a time when the United States’ relationship with its slaveholding past has become the subject of sustained revaluation, its means of electing the executive remains steeped in the legacy of American slavery.

It takes only a brief examination, such as this, to reveal the stark contrasts between the historical mentalities with which the electoral college was established and the realities of a modern, democratic state. Further attempts to reform the institution will no doubt continue to come and go, as they have over the past two hundred years. However, when compared with the environment in which it was proposed, it is clear that the unreformed electoral college is no longer fit for purpose and must, eventually, give way to a system in which the president is elected by a popular vote.

Ed Warren

Debates Take On a Different Meaning in the “Worst Year Ever”

The Trump-Biden debates are wrapped up, and for the “Worst Year Ever” they didn’t disappoint. The first debate was widely condemned as the “Worst Debate Ever”. Both candidates talked over each other, and it was near-impossible to understand them. Biden faced calls to boycott the other debates. Trump made this decision for him, falling ill with COVID-19.

President Donal Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden take the stage in their final debate of the election campaign, Nashville, Tennessee. (Credit: Reuters)

Anyone who saw even brief highlights of the first debate could be forgiven for giving up on the whole institution of debates. But this would be extremely unwise. Yes, Trump interrupted Joe Biden a staggering 128 times. And admittedly, Joe Biden did reply by telling him to “shut up” and calling him a “clown”. Yet this wasn’t the breakdown of the debate as an institution. Rather, it was an additional insight into who the two candidates are, and how they will act in the face of the adversity that Presidents experience on a daily basis.

The problem with the way we view debates is that we anticipate 90 minutes of detailed and virtuous policy discussion. There is no clearer example of this fantasy than the West Wing episode, in which the two candidates running for president have a high-minded and theoretical exchange of views on what it means to stand as a Republican or a Democrat. In reality, presidential debates have little to do with policy. Most voters are unswayed by the arguments of the candidates; they may have little trust in them, or have made up their minds previously. The one area where debates really count is character.

The focus on character may be why the UK has lacked similar style pre-election debates, and why attempts here have enjoyed less success. The presidency is a position uniquely judged by the character of its occupant, and in the build-up to 2020 President Trump’s character – depending on who you ask – has been viewed as his biggest strength or weakness. This really gets to the crux of what debates are, and what they have always been – a blank slate.

The debate is one of the few foreseeable major events in a campaign. But that is all that can be foreseen: the event. Most voters are aware of it, and around 80 million will watch it, but the candidates are under no obligation to make it a debate on the state of America. Like most other political realities, the in-depth policy debate was an unwritten rule, held up by the ‘honour system’, and President Trump lacks this honour.

Using debates for non-policy advantages is as old as the institution itself. In the first ever presidential debate in 1960, Nixon faced off against Kennedy. Nixon turned up looking sickly and sweaty, whilst JFK was the epitome of suave New England style. Accordingly, whilst radio listeners thought Nixon had performed better, TV viewers agreed that Kennedy had won the debate. The echoes of 1960 were clear in Mr Trump’s first performance, in which he waved his hands, stood firm, interrupted, and generally tried to give the impression that he was in control of the events of the stage. Yet Mr Biden was not immune from these gimmicks either – he would flash a smile whenever the president made an outrageous claim, as if to say, “look at this clown – does he have what it takes to fill the office?”

Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in their final presidential debate; 21 October, 1960. (Credit: AP Photo)

The pressure of these debates is intense. Each given candidate will have three or four separate strategies they’re trying to pursue, and they have to juggle all of them whilst simultaneously readjusting their approach depending on which hits are landing. In the first debate, Mr Trump was balancing trying to present Joe Biden as senile, racist, and yet also a radical socialist. The president struggled with these conflicting narratives, especially as he hoped that constantly interrupting Mr Biden would force the former vice president into a memorable gaffe. Ultimately, it was Mr Trump’s inability to change his approach in the debate that cost him more than any of his policy errors, and formed the main narrative of the debate in its aftermath.

But there was ultimately something more sinister going on. Donald Trump’s biggest election worry is high turnout – Republicans usually vote reliably, but Democrats are much more vote-shy. This is doubly true of young people. Accordingly, the president may have been playing a deeper game during the first debate, one which he executed outstandingly. President Trump saw an opportunity to portray the debate as an irrelevant contest between two old white men – not dissimilar to how young Americans view the election already. Mr Trump’s constant interruptions made the debate unbearable to watch, but he ultimately wanted that. He may not have done well with the few undecided voters left in the campaign. He will care little. The bigger constituency was voters undecided between voting for Biden or staying home. The first debate looked exactly like two old men bickering, and for Trump that’s as close to a debate win as he can get.

Seth Weisz

What Will Happen Now Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Dead?

You cannot understand the confirmation process of Amy Coney Barrett without understanding that of Robert Bork. Nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bork was a polarising figure, known for his disdain for the supposed liberal activism of the court. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, deeming Bork to be too radical for the court, turned away from the bipartisan tradition of assessing a nominee’s qualifications rather than values. The Judiciary Committee hearings featured hostile questioning, and Bork was ultimately rejected by 58-42 in a Democratic-majority Senate. The events produced the term “borked,” referring to the vigorous questioning of the legal philosophy and political views of judges in an effort to derail their nomination. The legacy of Bork lives on today.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) has triggered a high-stakes nomination process just weeks before the election. The Supreme Court is the highest level of the judicial branch in the US, with Justices nominated by the President and voted on by the Senate. The process usually takes a few months, with nominees being interviewed privately by senators, and then publicly by the Senate Judiciary Committee, before being forwarded by the committee to be voted on in the Senate. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2014. (Credit: Ruven Afanador)

However Barack Obama’s final year in office altered the traditional conception of nominating Supreme Court Justices. With the death of Justice Scalia in 2016, Obama, in alignment with the Constitution, nominated Merrick Garland to fill the seat. However, in what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt deemed “an extraordinary instance of norm breaking,” the Republican-controlled Senate refused hearings. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell argued that in an election year the Senate should wait until a new President has been elected, thus giving “the people” a say in the nomination process.

His position proved polarising. The practice of the Senate blocking a specific nominee (as in the case of Bork) would usually be fairly uncontroversial, even happening to George Washington in 1795. The issue was McConnell preventing an elected President from filling the seat at all, something that had never happened in post-construction US politics.

Yet the death of RBG has shown this precedent to be short-lived. Despite a Court seat opening up even closer to the election, the vast majority of Republicans have accepted McConnell’s present claim that his own precedent doesn’t apply in an election year if the same party holds both the Senate and Presidency. Thus, President’s Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, looks set to be confirmed.

It’s unknown how polarising her confirmation will be. The hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991 were dominated by the questioning of Anita Hill over her allegations of sexual harassment against the then-nominee, with Thomas then accusing the Democrat-led hearing of being a “high-tech lyniching for uppity who in any way deign to think for themselves.” The 2018 Kavanaugh hearings echoed this process, with the then-nominee accused of attempted rape in a widely-viewed public hearing. Although the Barrett hearings are unlikely to prove as sinister, it’s likely the Republicans will accuse the Democrats of finding any means possible to block a conservative justice, as was seen in the Clarence and Kavanaugh hearings.

Barrett is set to be ‘borked’. Her views have been well-documented over her career, and, most notably, Republican Senators seem confident she’ll vote to overturn Roe vs Wade, the 1973 ruling that protected a woman’s liberty to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The Committee hearings process will likely rally each party’s base going into the election, but the long term implications on civil rights and the legitimacy of the Court have yet to be determined.

Sam Lazenby


Bibliography

The Economist. “Courting trouble: The knife fight over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement.” (26 Sep 2020) https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/09/26/the-knife-fight-over-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-replacement

The Economist. “What does Amy Coney Barrett think?” (26 Sep 2020) https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/09/26/what-does-amy-coney-barrett-think

Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D. (2019) “How Democracies Die.” Great Britain: Penguin

Liptak, A. “Barrett’s Record: A Conservative Who Would Push the Supreme Court to the Right.,” New York Times (26 Sep 2020). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/us/amy-coney-barrett-views-abortion-health-care.html

Pruitt, S. “How Robert Bork’s Failed Nomination Led to a Changed Supreme Court,” History (28 Oct 2018). https://www.history.com/news/robert-bork-ronald-reagan-supreme-court-nominations

Siddiqui, S. “Kavanaugh hearing recalls Clarence Thomas case,” The Guardian, (27 Sep 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/27/brett-kavanaugh-clarence-thomas-anita-hill-hearings

Victor, D. “How a Supreme Court Justice Is (Usually) Appointed,” The New York Times, (26 Sep 2020). https://docs.google.com/document/d/1880187lYZ4z9gXjkVeNDsSsN8F0ZdRK1MIrua4CQmIk/edit

‘Accepting Violence and Violent Language Against Women:’ How Language is Used to Belittle Female Politicians

On Thursday the 23rd American Congresswoman for New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came before congress to call for a point of personal privilege. Ms. Cortez sought to address her recent confrontation with Republican Congressman Ted Yoho who was overheard by a member of the press as calling her a ‘f***ing b***h.’ Mr. Yoho has denied using this particular phrase but has apologised for the ‘abrupt manner of the conversation [he] had with [his] colleague from New York,’ referring to his aggressive confrontation with Ms. Cortez on the steps of the Capitol during which he, according to Ms. Cortez, called her ‘disgusting,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘out of [her] mind.’ 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at New York City’s Women’s March, 2019. (Credit: Dimitri Rodriguez, via Flickr)

Ms. Cortez remarked in her address that she expects no sincere apology from the representative from Florida, ‘a man who has no remorse over calling women and using abusive language towards women.’ Throughout her address, Ms. Cortez continually returned to this point of contention, using her encounter with Mr. Yoho as but one example of a wider cultural issue. Citing two more instances of verbal abuse issued by male colleagues, one being the President of the United States himself, Ms. Cortez incisively remarked such encounters expose ‘a cultural lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports men.’ Ms. Cortez’s speech highlights that her highly-reported altercation outside the physical heart of US political discourse is but one of many identical interactions between congressmen and woman on both sides of the bench that occur far less publically but with concerning frequency. 

This issue is not endemic to the United States alone but has been found to be globally pervasive. A recent study on ‘Violence Against Women in Politics’ in the UK conducted by Delyth Jewell, a women’s right’s campaigner at ActionAid UK, interviewed female members of parliament to ascertain the frequency with which female politicians experience some form of violence (verbal or physical). Jewell interviewed one member of parliament who told her ‘everyone knows it happens; it happens to all women [in politics].’ Jewell’s study also highlights the frequency of abusive encounters associated with female politicians is alarming given the comparatively short period of time that their admission to parliament has even been legal. Jewell notes, ‘since gaining the right to be elected as members of parliament in 1918, a total of 489 women have been elected. This represents only 9% of all members of parliament elected over this time period.’ During this short history, women have been far less visible in politics and have faced harsh censure for aspects of their person outside of their political presence, a reality that is seemingly absent from the male political narrative. One only has to look to the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death on which ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ re-entered the UK charts at number two, extending a lifetime of criticism beyond the grave.

What Ms. Jewell’s study reveals is that female politicians in the UK have historically faced a heightened threat of violence in the comparatively short period of time that they have been politically active. As Congresswoman Cortez exposes however, attacks on female political competency and simply female political participation come just as frequently from within the house as without. In 2011, former prime minister David Cameron was criticised for belittling a female colleague across the bench. During a lively debate discussing the NHS, Mr. Cameron told shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ as she, among others, opposed his remarks surrounding former Labour MP Howard Stoate. Like Ms. Cortez, Ms. Eagle did not expect an apology from the Prime Minister (nor did she receive one) but instead remarked that ‘I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself that way,’ adding ‘women in Britain in the twenty-first century do not expect to be told to “calm down dear” by their prime minister.’ Whether they expect to be addressed in such a manner or not, Mr. Cameron’s rebuttal rings of the systemic dismissal of female political voices; a dismissal that, as Ms. Cortez’s experience attests, can often cross the line into confrontation. This begs the question, when will it be time to tell politicians like representative Yoho and former prime minister Cameron to ‘calm down dear’ when they attack the female political voice.

Lily Riley

What Stonewall 1969 can Teach Us About Activism

Photo by Diana Davies depicts the Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square 1969, accessed via The Guardian.

Understanding the historical construction of LGBTQ+ movements is imperative to furthering current activism. A prime example of this is the creation of the ‘Stonewall Myth’, as the Stonewall riots are now revered as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in the US. Given the current situation in the US it seems more important than ever to understand how protests shape the historical narrative. Understanding how activists construct social memory around particular events enables us to further the gains of the current LGBTQ+ movement as many grapple with how to further the rights of, and protect the more marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall riots were started by African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson. A series of riots began on June 27th 1969 after police raided a homosexual bar in New York (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 724), they are now remembered as a catalyst for the gay civil rights movement in the US. However, sociologists Armstrong & Crage note that there were similar instances of activism prior to this such as the 1965 New Year’s Ball raid in San Francisco (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730), which were not committed to the collective social memory. They use these instances to highlight the two conditions that are essential for an event to permeate the collective memory, which are that ‘activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle’ (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730). Unlike previous raids in other parts of the country, Stonewall was able to achieve these criteria. Activists used the raid as the basis for commemorative marches which became the first gay pride and has since solidified the event in US social memory. The significance of Stonewall also highlights the extent to which the movement grew between 1969 and the Black Cat raids a few years earlier (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 736). Events that fit into existing genres are generally seen as more commemorable. Much like how the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the US demonstrate a maturation of the black lives matter movement, Stonewall showed a maturation of the gay civil rights movement, which meant that the Gay Liberation Front was better financially equipped to create mnemonic resonance.

Achieving ‘mnemonic capacity’ with regard to an event is all the more difficult now as the growth of social media makes it harder to corral attention around specific events for extended periods of time. As we have seen with the recent protests in both Hong Kong and the US, social media can be an immensely powerful tool to bring people together, even when communication is limited within society. But in order to make sure these movements are remembered and create lasting change we can take lessons from Stonewall activists in how they used repetitive action to make their message permeate the collective memory and achieve long term progress in civil rights. Zeynep Tufekci argues that modern social movements fail to ‘sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics.’ Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of how our rights may be under threat, as we saw with the Government’s recent proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which could have devastating impacts on the trans community. However, in order to transform this awareness into significant political power we can take inspiration from Stonewall, which showed how repetitive, radical action is necessary to make sure that the wider public take notice of movements for justice.

Alicia Bickerstaff


Bibliography

Armstrong, E.A & Crage, S.N, 2006, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, Vol.71, No. 5 pp. 724-751, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425

Loong, L.L.H, 2012, ‘Deconstructing the silences: Gay Social Memory’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol.59, No.5, pp.675-688, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.673903

Mitchell Reyes, G & Schulz, David. P & Hovland, Zoe, 2018, ‘When Memory and Sexuality Collide: The Homosentimental Style of Gay Liberation’, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1 April 2018, Vol.21, No.1, pp.39-74, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/journal/171

Tufekci, Z, 2014, Online Social Change: Easy To Organize, Hard To Win, online video, Viewed 7th June, https://www.ted.com/…/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_m…

George Floyd

History does not look kindly on bystanders but we must not allow our fear of this to determine our reaction to injustice.

The killing of George Floyd has emblazoned social media with messages of protest in solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter. Unlike those who came before us, we are able to broadcast our views to the world, but eagerness to not be remembered as onlookers in an atrocity should not determine the action we take. Soundbite political culture and social media allows statements to be publicly broadcast, but we must be careful that this does not supplant real meaningful political engagement. When the hashtags have stopped we must continue to act against injustice.

Posting on social media is not a replacement for real life critical engagement with our political and social climate. Public statements that ‘Black Lives Matter’ are virtue signalling if we don’t look at the flaws within our communities, families and ourselves. Racial injustice does not just occur in times like this when we see an African American man being murdered by a police officer in the US. In the UK, racism is prevalent, institutional and historically entrenched. If we are to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, they must matter always, not just when it is the done thing to post a slogan supporting justice on social media.

Unless they are backed up by action, words are dispassionate at best and dishonest at worst.

I fear that statement-led politics can be used to absolve white peoples’ guilt. Expressions of sympathy can be used as a statement that ‘I am not racist’, ‘I am not one of them’. White people are in a position of inherent privilege as their skin colour is not a basis for oppression. Does this political culture on social media make it easier to avoid conversations about race as people appoint themselves immune from being part of the problem? We must consider the use of social media in a productive way and solely expressing sympathy or solidarity is not enough to be part of the solution. White people must acknowledge their racial privilege and actively challenge racism even when it may feel uncomfortable to do so. If our behaviours or attitudes are challenged we should listen to the experiences of others and not assume that our Black Lives Matter post can make us immune from making mistakes.

Our generation’s power to engage with and combat global injustice is unparalleled and this is largely due to our connections with each other through social media. Our anger should not be used for social approval and our anger does not absolve people from wrongdoing. Our anger needs to be supported by action for radical change and active anti-racism. Social media can raise awareness, but if we don’t support these words with action, we are no better than those who stand by and watch.

I am writing this as a white person and am not exempt myself from what I have argued. I am going to do better and put more effort into being aware, listening and learning about racism and my own privilege. To find out how to help go to https://blacklivesmatter.carrd.co, this includes informational resources and links to the places where your donations and signature can be the most effective. For causes to contribute to in the UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/…/black-lives-matter-charity-….