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The Policing of Women Then and Now and How to Curb It

Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org.

 

There are infinite ways women and girls get policed by their teachers, parents, peers and terrorists. There are teeny, tiny, nearly indetectable smackdowns, such as calling on boys instead of girls in class. Then there are the big, murderous messages impossible to ignore. And everything in between.

California Senator Kamala Harris speaks to the Women's March on American ideals and the universal importance of “women's issues.”

We’re having a big nasty moment amid an eternity of women and girls being shut up, shot down and shooed away, and severely punished — we don’t have to think back too far to remember the highest ironies of Sen. Elizabeth Warren being told to stop questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ history of civil rights transgressions; Sen. Kamala Harris’ request to “be courteous” while seeking a yes-no answer during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing; and, during an Uber board meeting about the company’s rampant sexism, as Arianna Huffington was explaining the benefits of more females on the board, her billionaire businessman colleague interrupted to joke about how adding women to the board would result in “more talking.” (Also, shout out to thousands of other women policed through time began, in history and in myth, such as Cassandra, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Pussy Riot, Hermione Granger, Hillary Clinton). As our new president and his comrades systematically disembowel the United States and all we stand for, we’re navigating new waves of unabashed hatred toward marginalized folks – people of color, the gender-fluid and genderless, those on the LGBTQ spectrum, the disabled, the very poor (and some might argue, the middle class) – we’re also seeing an alarming regression in derision, outright aggression and even murder of women and girls at all the intersections of marginality.

One egregiously inhumane example of targeting teen girls is Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from a Nigerian boarding school; still another: targeting Ariana Grande’s concert, whose primary audience is teen and pre-teen girls, with the message, “stay home, shut up.” Adding to the poignancy of the tragedy: the concert was titled “Dangerous Woman” in support of Grande’s new album.

Women's March: Signs
Women's March signs | Val Zavala

But misogyny comes in systemic flavors as well — consider these the waves that are aggregates of billions of particles of microbullsh*t. Take, for example, the renewed war on Planned Parenthood. “A move to close down Planned Parenthood is also about policing women,” says Rabbi Tamara Cohen, chief of innovation for Moving Traditions, a Jewish teen-focused organization that empowers adolescents and challenges sexism. “It's about policing women's bodies. And a lot of the anti-choice laws are also about policing teenagers because they are the people that sometimes need access to reproductive options.”

Why are teenage girls such a global threat that they need to be stomped down, shut up and disappeared? Why is it that Vireo needs to be treated for hysteria, a “wastebasket diagnosis” that’s been attributed to women for thousands of years? It is because they are the future of the world. They are strong and fertile and will shape humanity’s next generation, and their daughters will shape the generation after that. They are trying on their sexual power as part of their organic development. They are evolving as people. Their main crime that instills so much hate and fear, to paraphrase spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson, is that they are powerful beyond measure; their light is too bright, too strong, too much for even the most powerful adult. They are, in the same breath, envied by a world that has chased youth culture to an absurd degree, since the Greeks worshipped Hebe and the Romans, Juventas; since Juan Ponce de León declared he’d found the Fountain of Youth in what’s now Florida; since Americans have no problem spending $16 billion a year on cosmetic surgery.

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Lisa Bloom is the author of “Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down Worldand a prominent attorney who represents victims in high-profile sexual assault and harassment cases. Most recently, she’s taken on comedian Kathy Griffin as a client in the aftermath of her “blood coming out of his wherever” joke imagery featuring a beheaded Donald Trump.

Even though women got the vote in 1920, the Equal Pay act in 1963, and there have, to date, been four women appointed to the Supreme Court, Bloom says that in a cultural sense, there are few improvements to how girls and women are treated. “I don't really think it's getting better. I think that we spend far too much time worrying about what teenage girls look like and how they dress, and not enough time on what's in their brains, whether they're learning how to think critically, whether they're learning how to express themselves clearly and forcefully, whether they have good self-esteem, whether they're comfortable in their bodies, whatever kind of bodies they might have,” Bloom said.

Women's March
Women's March | Dija Dowling

High school and the family dynamic is boot camp for corporate America and the world at large. It’s where we learn overt and miniscule social cues, norms and expectations. When we’ve been interrupted at the dinner table for 18 years, we hardly notice we’re being interrupted in the boardroom.  When we’re told as a teen that we need to modify our own behavior because “boys will be boys,” we end up taking on that responsibility into adulthood, giving a pass to “men acting like men.”

Specifically, when girls are routinely called out and punished for their hair color or style, it’s not such a leap when we see a woman convicted for laughing at Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing as attorney general. And then a little further on, as a punishment worse than any physical confinement, in some places women and girls are forced to marry their rapists so the men can avoid jail time. This doesn’t just happen in fundamental countries that we think of as having old patriarchal hangovers such as Tunisia, Libya and Lebanon – the United States can claim thousands of forced marriages of girls 12 to 18 years old, who are often chained to their rapists and abusers with the consent of their parents.

Safety vs. Autonomy

There are myriad power shifts during adolescence – how to keep a child safe, for example, vs. letting her become an independent person who can navigate the very real dangers of the world. So if a 15-year-old girl strikes a smoldering pose in a bikini on Instagram, the first act of a concerned parent may be to shut her down, no questions asked, instead of exploring why it felt important for her to post the picture in the first place.

“If she's doing it because she feels that her only value is as a sexual being, then I think that her parents need to have a conversation with her about that,” Bloom says, adding,  “I think we have to shift the focus from what they look like to what's in their brain, care less about what's in their closets and more about what's between their ears, and encourage them to speak up and to speak boldly and to be creative and take risks.”

Women's March: Family
A family at the Women's March | Dija Dowling

But sometimes the very act of keeping a close watch can backfire if done with too heavy a hand. Parental over-control coupled with impossible body-image pressure from media, exacerbated by social media and new avenues for bullying, can result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, which predominantly affect teen girls. Critical risk factors identified by the National Eating Disorders Association include perfectionism, body-image dissatisfaction, stringent rule-following of the belief that there’s one right way to do things, and just the simple act of being female or identifying on the LGBTQ spectrum.

It can be a bad scary world out there, populated with creatures who will prey on girls. But a girl’s virginity isn’t a commodity to be traded and guarded by a shotgun-toting father. “Safety is a real issue for girls, but I think the better way to do it is to empower them to be very aware of their surroundings, to say ‘no’ very clearly, even though to a boy being in situations that are risky, we have to teach girls that, because there are different issues,” Bloom said. “I don't think the focus is on keeping her virginity, she gets to make that choice, but the focus on safety is one that you have to have that conversation with girls. You don't get to walk around the streets alone late at night. You just don't get to. I'm sorry. You don't even want boys doing it either.”

 “One of the things that I recommend with parents of teenage girls is you have critical conversations about media. You're probably not going to stop them from watching stupid reality shows or from following people on Instagram who you're not crazy about, but check out what they're looking at and have critical conversations, because one great thing about teenagers is that they can be very skeptical,” Bloom said. “Why is it that the images of women we see on TV are all so idiotic? Why is it that when you go to the movies and there's 10 men and one woman in the movie, and she's the love interest who trips and falls in the chasing? You can really awaken feminist sensibility in a teenage girl pretty quickly when you have those kinds of conversations, because they don't like it, they feel disrespected, and I think that's a good place to start.”

And really, it’s about everybody waking up – men and women, boys and girls. It comes down to feminism for everyone. We need a deep cultural shift that puts responsibility for male aggression and violence where it belongs – with the behavior of men and boys (not because of something a girl or woman, trans or cis, wore or said or did). It means training everyone to be skeptical of the messages they give and get. It means giving girls their own proverbial shotgun in the form of knowledge so they can take and keep their power.

Women's March
Women's March | Dija Dowling

Top Image: Women's March in Washington D.C. | Val Zavala

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