Students go to SPARK Summit

Five Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) students were invited to attend the nationally recognized Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge (SPARK) Summit in New York City. 

Four of the five invited students were able to attend: Tasha de Sherbinin ’11, Cynia Barnwell ’11, Berol Dwedney ’13 and Lindsay Putnam ’12. They went to the conference in part to represent the program that the College has with Hardy Girls Healthy Women (HGHW). HGHW, an nonprofit organization that originated in Waterville “dedicated to the health and well being of girls and women,” according to its website. Aleah Starr ’11 also attended the conference to represent Projection, a collaborative photo project she started that encourages people to talk back to the media.

The SPARK summit focused on fighting against media gendering and overt sexualization of women, particularly young girls. Attendees listened to several speakers and participated in a number of workshops. Keynote speaker Geena Davis (of Thelma & Louise fame); Jean Kilbourne, creator of the popular Killing Us Softly mock advertisements and emcee Amber Madison, a sex expert and MTV personality, were also present. 

The girls’ participation in the conference was in part due to their independent study this year on a campus-wide project, Powered by Girl (PBG). “The concept of PBG is to use humor and satire to combat the negative images of girls and women prevalent in the media today,” Putnam said. “As PBGers, we all contribute to the website’s blog…we also have a great application that allows us to re-caption extremely sexist ads to expose the true meanings behind them.” PBG launched its website——one week ago. The Echo conducted an e-mail interview with two of the PBG girls, Tasha de Sherbinin and Lindsay Putnam, to talk about their work.

Q: What was your favorite moment of the conference? What was particularly inspiring? 

TS: My favorite moment of the conference was definitely getting the opportunity to meet Gloria Steinem. That aside, it was incredibly inspiring in general to be at a conference with so many powerful and intelligent women.

LP: On a somewhat superficial level, meeting famous feminists Gloria Steinem, Geena Davis and Jean Kilbourne was especially inspiring for me. Geena Davis made perhaps one of my favorite statements from the day: when talking about her role in the film A League of Their Own she said, “I wanted a role where I got to play baseball, not the role where I got to play the girlfriend of the guy who plays baseball.” It was also very inspiring simply to be in the presence of so many women from all ages and backgrounds who have dedicated so much for women’s equality.  Despite all the progress that has been made over the last few decades, most girls still find themselves growing up in a world where the media limits the roles women can fulfill in society—girls can be either smart or beautiful, not both—which has serious consequences for young girls’ self-image. 

Q: Which workshop did you attend, and can you tell us a bit about it?

TS: I attended two workshops, one on theater and one on hip-hop. The theater workshop focused on expressing your thoughts through theater by creating two different performances. The first performance involved writing something you were really angry about at the time. So I wrote a little monologue talking about my anger surrounding girls  sexualization in the media. After we wrote it, the leader of the workshop told us we had to publicly perform [our work] three times throughout the day. So I went outside to the street corner and basically yelled my monologue for anyone who was passing by. Some people looked at me like I was crazy and kept walking, but some clapped for me, and one woman even took out her camera. The other performance was called “invisible theater” and involved creating a dialogue with another girl and then “performing” it in a public place without the audience knowing that you are performing. So we created a dialogue about abusive relationships and “performed” it in the women's bathroom for other women to hear. 

Q: How did you get involved with Hardy Girls/the Spark Summit?

LP: I became involved with PBG, which is a subgroup of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, at the end of summer prior to the beginning of the school year. Lisa Arellano, head of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, sent out an email to WGSS majors and minors asking if we’d be interested in working with [Professor of Education] Lyn Mikel Brown on this project, and it sounded like something I would enjoy.  I love reading magazines like Cosmopolitan and watching reality television, but it can be frustrating seeing so many negative portrayals of women in the media.

TS: I started working for Hardy Girls last year as an intern and was excited to work with Lyn Mikel Brown on the Powered by Girl independent study. The SPARK Summit was a huge opportunity to take action and speak out against the sexualization of girls in the media, and Lyn Mikel Brown was so dedicated to making all of us involved in Powered By Girl part of it.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with Powered By Girl? Can you give us an example of a blog you’d like to post?

TS: I hope that people become more aware of the sexualization of girls in the media. Our blog topics range…from gendered toys to Lady Gaga music videos to sexist [television] commercials.

LP: Some of the topics that we come up with at our meetings for blog topics are just overwhelming. It never ceases to amaze me the abundance of issues in today’s world we can discuss on our website. What drew me in to the project initially was the blogging because I hope to pursue a career in journalism after Colby, hopefully at a women’s magazine. I wrote one blog addressing equality between the sexes in reality cooking shows—I love Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef, but to look through the history of the programs and see the disparity between the number of male winners and female winners is extremely disheartening (in seven seasons Top Chef has only had one female winner).  This isn’t necessarily the shows’ fault, but it does reflect the sexist atmosphere of kitchens in general and the belief that women “cannot handle such a stressful environment”…please.

LP: I think the SPARK Summit is especially important because it helps to address the increasing pressure that young girls face to act “sexy.” Women have their entire adult lives to express their sexuality when they’ve had the time to become comfortable with themselves and their bodies; young girls should not have to sell themselves out before they even reach puberty. The sexualization of young girls leads to numerous health risks, physically and emotionally.  Girls who feel this pressure are more likely to develop eating disorders, become depressed, commit suicide, engage in unsafe or unwanted sex, contract STIs and experience teen pregnancy. 

Q: How do you see gender/sexuality on Colby’s  campus—what would you like to be different and what have you noticed has changed over your time on the Hill? 

TS: This is a really difficult question to narrow down to one answer, but I think that gender and sexuality are two big issues on campus that are frequently overlooked. I would like to see more awareness of issues surrounding gender and sexuality on campus. A positive change that I have seen since I’ve been here is the rise of two club—The Women’s Group and Gentlemen of Quality—that have both done work to raise awareness of issues surrounding gender and sexuality on campus. The Bridge has also been incredibly active this year.

LP: I think views on gender and sexuality on the campus reflects a lot of societal norms. I hear a lot of students say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and it can be very frustrating because it’s clear that students either don’t know what constitutes feminism or they are afraid to associate with feminism based on media’s portrayal of feminists.  

When I first started working with PBG I was even criticized by my friends who argued that I was not a feminist because I have a very liberal attitude regarding sex and sexuality.  First of all, anyone that believes in the basic notion that men and women should be paid equally for equal work is a feminist, so I sincerely hope that everyone on this campus is a feminist in that regard.  Second, I had to inform them that there’s a difference between a college-aged woman embracing her sexuality and an eleven year-old girl feeling pressured into wearing makeup revealing clothing and even engaging in sexual activities.  I think that this is all a result of media’s influence on society’s views of what constitutes a feminist.  Many students seem to still buy into the notion that a feminist is a girl who doesn’t care about her appearance in any way, doesn’t shave, doesn’t engage in sexual behavior and hates men, and those stereotypes aren’t true by any means. 

I also think that many people don’t think that gender and sexuality is an issue that needs to be discussed on campus.  Many people feel that because the women’s movement “already happened” there is nothing left to work for, but I think students at Colby experience inequalities and double standards on campus every day, and a lot of it does revolve around the hook-up culture on campus.  Colby has that classic college dichotomy where a male student that has relations (whatever form they may be) with numerous women is seen as a “player” and is idolized, while a female student that has relations with numerous men is seen as a slut.  And while most of them don’t get reported, female students on campus all probably have a friend that has been assaulted in some way during her time at Colby, which signifies that the objectification of women in the media has been drilled into our heads for so long that men really do see women as objects existing solely for their own pleasure.