We Are No Birds: Super-/Em-Powered

I’ll be honest. I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid. Comics were something that boys read, and besides, they were all a bunch of beefy men beating each other up anyway, so what was I really missing? As I came of age, so too did superheroes, it seemed. When I was in high school, Marvel was popping out movies nearly every year. So, as someone who was desperate for friends at the time, when it was suggested we go see Iron Man or Captain America or Thor, I agreed, even though I didn’t really think it would be “my thing.”

While I did enjoy these movies—it turns out watching a bunch of beefy men punch each other can be fun—the budding feminist in me wondered where the women were. Sure, Iron Man had Pepper Potts, Captain America had Peggy Carter, and Thor had Jane Foster, but these women inevitably ended up in a romantic entanglement with the hero that turned her from a potentially strong character into yet another heart-eyed fawn. Even at that age, I was quite familiar with (and sick of) this trope. I would come out of the theater feeling like a superhero who could run fast, punch through walls, or fly, but this feeling wore off in about twenty minutes. These movies were entertainment, but they fell flat of having a real effect on me.

Then came The Avengers. Finally! I thought. A female superhero who gets to fight with the boys! And Black Widow did just that—at least, in part. I could never quite identify with Black Widow at the time because although I was thin, I never thought of myself as sexy, one key to Black Widow’s power. But I continued to go see Marvel movies, since, as I said, they made for a fun evening and gave me momentary feeling of power afterward.

That is, until Marvel released Avengers: Age of Ultron. By this point, I’d just finished my second year of college (and perhaps importantly, my first Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class). When the stereotypical Forced Heterosexual Romance reared its ugly head between Black Widow and the Hulk, I lost all interest. The little autonomy Black Widow had had in the first Avengers movie had been completely eroded and her character had been reduced to a flimsy, man-dependent shell of what she had been. And thus ended my short affair with the superhero genre. Or so I thought.

Summer of 2017 had kept me busy, from graduating college to going on various trips. I had, though, still heard the buzz about Wonder Woman. I heard the movie was smashing box office records and critics were raving. Friends asked me repeatedly if I had seen it yet. Thinking all of these people had to be onto something, I took my boyfriend to see Wonder Woman in July, just before it left theaters.

I did my best to reserve judgment to keep from getting my hopes up, but ten minutes into the film, I was enamored with it. I left the theater feeling so much more than that fleeting sense of power I got after any previous Marvel movie. I came out of Wonder Woman feeling, in the fullest sense of the word, empowered. Here was a character who was not only physically strong (and more so than her male companions) but also emotionally and intellectually capable of engaging with the complicated world. Finally, Hollywood was depicting a female superhero as a feminist, the kind of hero who inspires and emboldens women like me. For example, rather than letting her grief for Steve Trevor prevent her from defeating the villain, Diana (Wonder Woman’s real name) overcomes this feeling to do her duty for the good of the world. And yet, at the same time, Diana expresses a variety of emotions, just like any real woman, a human being, would: she is angry at the all-male war council who refuses to listen to her; she is delighted to see a baby in the street; and she feels grief when inhabitants of the small Belgian village are killed and guilt at not being able to prevent the carnage. And while Steve and Diana do have a romance, Diana does not let her feelings for him impede her mission, thus avoiding the Forced Heterosexual Romance trope. Rather, as in the real lives of women who are feminists, romance and work coexist.

I could go on about what I liked in Wonder Woman, but my main point circles back to that feeling of empowerment. Here’s the thing about the superhero genre. Superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves. Even if the hero has been genetically modified or is from another planet, we still recognize them as human. Even if they have powers (like super speed, flight, or super strength) that mark them as non-human, their sense of ethics is what makes us respect them and recognize a part of ourselves in them. As such, putting aside their superpowers, we want superheroes to be as “real” as possible. We want them to have and express emotion, to make meaningful connections with other people. It’s no surprise, then, that when a superhero’s character simply fulfills stereotypes, rather than being “real” and complex, we feel disappointed. Characters like this fail to really resonate with an audience due to their lack of depth. Even if superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves, they still ought to contain the complexities and multitudes that your average non-super human does. When I saw superhero movies like Captain America, I was disappointed because the hero (and his female sidekick) did not resonate with my idea of the best version of myself. Although I admired Captain America’s sense of justice, the movie, for various reasons, supported a bias that supported the dominant, patriarchal power structure.

For groups who have been historically underrepresented, misrepresented, or stereotyped in Hollywood, seeing people like you on the big screen and portrayed in ways that do not perpetuate stereotypes is a truly great feeling. I don’t know if I have ever seen as many women on a movie screen at one time as I have in the opening scenes of Wonder Woman at Themyscira. And what are the women in this scene doing? Training. Being physically strong and athletic, without catering to the male gaze with “sexy” shots or with weakness in emotions or strength. I hope that there are more movies with unbiased tones like Wonder Woman to make women and other historically marginalized groups of people feel, well, super.

We Are No Birds: Schrödinger’s Closet: The Bisexual Dilemma

In Western society, we love binaries. Whether we’re talking about gender (man/woman), sexuality (straight/gay), race (white/black), or even pets (dog/cat), we love being able to sort things as either one thing or the other with no in-between. It makes everything simpler. If you aren’t one thing, then you’re the other, and that’s that. Easy. However, this kind of thinking provides no room in the middle for those who don’t quite fit into one category or the other. As a result, anything from confusion to derision can be directed at someone who occupies this middle space.

Consider bisexuality. (After all, last week was Bisexuality Awareness Week.) For a variety of reasons (including the sexuality binary mentioned above), a number of negative stereotypes exist about bisexual people. Those who identify as bisexual are often judged by others as being straight people who are “just experimenting”—the assumption being that they will give up this sexually-deviant behavior and come back to the “right” side (heterosexuality). This is especially true for bisexual women, who are often fetishized by straight men for their attraction to women, and not because of sexual equality. Being attracted to both men and women is seen by some as being “greedy” and sexually promiscuous as well as deviant. Similarly, according to these types of stereotypes, a person who identifies as bisexual is “actually gay” and won’t (or can’t) admit it. Many in our society with this heteronormative gaze apply this stereotype to bisexual men. All of these stereotypes paint bisexuality as deviant and characterize the bisexual as being “unable to choose” who they are attracted to.

When someone identifies as bisexual and they are dating someone of the opposite gender, they may be told or made to feel that they aren’t “queer enough” to be part of the LGBTQI movement. Being in this kind of relationship may also lead to accusations of denying their sexual orientation or cause the bisexual person to feel that they are “repressing” any homosexual leanings they may have. It can be difficult to express one’s attraction to more than one gender when in a monogamous relationship; many bisexuals may feel compelled to “prove” themselves in LGBTQI groups or gatherings. As such, some people may choose not to identify as bisexual to avoid the whole discussion, thinking it easier to just identify as straight or gay.

All of these stereotypes and negative perceptions result in something I call the Schrodinger’s Closet, a derivation of “Schrodinger’s Cat” that refers to a mind experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. The hypothetical experiment involved placing a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison. The part of the experiment that matters for our purposes here is that, as long as the box remains sealed, the cat is both alive and dead. (For a more thorough explanation of the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, see the Telegraph article below.) Even someone who has never taken a physics class can tell you that it is impossible for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time.

Let’s do another thought experiment. Imagine a bisexual person. The gender of this person is not relevant, so I’ll use a gender-neutral name and pronouns. Let’s call them Sam. Sam is not in a relationship. As such, Sam is both gay and straight, in a sense. (That is, they are attracted both to people of the same gender and of the opposite gender.) However, if we apply society’s sexuality binary, Sam should not exist. It is not possible to be both gay and straight: you are either one or the other. In the same way that we want to know if Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, we, as a society, want to know if Sam is gay or straight. We are not willing to accept that they are attracted to people of both genders. Thus, as a society, we socially impose Schrodinger’s Closet and sort people as either gay or straight, depending on what type of relationship they are in or what gender they are more attracted to.

Several close friends who identify as bisexual have expressed feelings of frustration with these negative stereotypes and perceptions. They have also found Schrodinger’s Closet frustrating: if they are in a “straight” relationship, even if they feel happy and satisfied with their partner, they sometimes feel that they aren’t “queer enough” or that they “don’t count” as a member of the LGBTQI population. At the same time, if they were to date someone whose gender identity matches their own, they fear being ostracized or questioned from family or other friends who might “think they’re gay now.” Schrodinger’s Closet can also be inherently frustrating when in a monogamous relationship, since the bisexual person may feel that they can’t fully express their sexuality. As established, much of the negative perceptions around bisexuality come from our society’s inability to understand (or try to understand) anything that doesn’t fit within our predetermined binaries. Schrodinger’s Closet is a result of that. It’s no wonder that, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, only twenty-eight percent of bisexuals have “come out” to important people in their lives. By contrast, seventy-seven percent of gay men and seventy-eight percent of lesbian women have come out.

Interestingly, though, an increasing number of millennials—up to thirty percent according to a poll in 2011 by YouGov—identify as bisexual or not exclusively attracted to one gender. The friends I mentioned earlier are all millennials, and among people my age, being or knowing someone who identifies as bisexual is a pretty common thing. As attitudes about gender and sexuality change, perhaps more and more people will find themselves able to be who they are without fear of being characterized as a deviant or a fake. Bisexuals are only one group of people who are marginalized because they occupy the middle space between the binary. Society imposes a number of closets on people who cross gender, sexual, or racial binaries. We must take strides to remove the hinges from Schrodinger’s Closet rather than locking people inside of it.






We Are No Birds: Being and Doing Feminism

What does it mean to be a feminist? It’s a question you’ve likely heard before, perhaps several times. Perhaps you’ve even asked it yourself. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” A feminist, then, would be someone who believes in this theory. Simple enough, right?

And yet, feminism is not (and has never been) quite that simple.

The word “feminist” brings to mind a whole host of images. Depending on your background and your own personal beliefs, you may think of a feminist as an unshaven, overweight woman waving a protest sign in your face, or women wearing pink hats at the Women’s March on Washington, or a “man-hating lesbian,” or historical figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Virginia Woolf, or celebrity activists like Beyoncé and Emma Watson. Feminist has always been a loaded term, a term that even many advocates for women’s rights shy away from.

The conflict here stems from a discrepancy between being a feminist and doing feminism. Being a feminist is anyone who supports the aforementioned definition of feminism given by Merriam-Webster’s. Subscribing to this belief system is all one needs to be a feminist. Doing feminism, as the name implies, is about action. To do feminism refers to the actions you take on a regular basis to promote and move toward equality for all people, regardless of gender identification. For example, what do you say to others in order to promote the feminist cause? What issues do you protest with regard to gender equality? Who and what do you read? Do you approach discussions with others about oppression from a feminist standpoint? Do you consume your media consciously, expressing criticism of discriminatory attitudes and premises? How each of us answers these questions determines what our personal picture of feminism looks like.

During the 1960s, radical and liberal feminists clashed over how best to achieve their goals of equality. Radical feminists called for a total upheaval of the current sociopolitical structure to eradicate the patriarchy while liberal feminists worked within the already-existing confines of patriarchy to pass legislation like the Equal Rights Amendment. Radical feminists thought that liberal feminists were too lenient on patriarchy while liberal feminists thought radical feminists were too severe on patriarchy. One issue that these two groups clashed over was childcare. While liberal feminists often argued that childcare needed to be more affordable for working mothers, radical feminists argued that patriarchy unfairly burdened women (and not men) with having to choose between child-rearing and a professional career. (There was a short-lived campaign for housewives to be paid for taking care of the domestic sphere, but it was unfortunately unsuccessful.) Although, at the end of the day, the two camps still believed in equal rights for men and women, how they chose to do feminism was what made them different and oftentimes caused conflict.

We can still see these kinds of conflicts in twenty-first century feminism. The increasing visibility of people who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming have brought to light the kind of oppression they face because of their gender identities. Not only do individuals who identify as transgender and nonbinary face discrimination in spaces like public bathrooms, but they also face oppression in the workplace, with “near universal” harassment and double the national unemployment rate, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. However, not everyone believes that transgender and nonbinary people should be included in their version of feminism. This brings to mind a similar debate from the 1960s regarding who should and should not be included in the feminist movement. Some lesbians argued that straight women, by having romantic and sexual relationships with men, were simply perpetuating the patriarchy. One could not be in a truly equal relationship with a man because men were always part of the patriarchy and would always seek to dominate women.

To give another modern-day example, many feminists have taken to the Internet as a form of protest and expression. The Internet has proved a valuable tool for many to spread awareness of feminist issues through more easily-digestible forms (like videos, blog posts, and even Tweets). On the flip side, there are those that argue that this isn’t “really” feminism: simply sharing videos and blog posts on one’s social networking sites does not constitute activism. Is “Internet activism” just one way of doing feminism, or does it fail to do enough for the cause?

In my opinion, this policing of what is and is not feminism and who is and isn’t a feminist can really slow progress. In the fight for equality, excluding others who have been discriminated against runs counter to the feminist message of equality for all. Feminism is about dismantling existing patriarchal power structures so that everyone has equal opportunities and can live their lives freely without fear of being repressed or silenced. Regardless of how each of us choose to do feminism, we should seek to include as many in our fight as possible.

The title of this column (“We Are No Birds”) is taken from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a classic work of literature and one of my personal favorite books. Rochester, the main love interest, has committed a crime that the morally upright protagonist, Jane, doesn’t think she can forgive. When Rochester jokes that Jane is like a bird tearing out its feathers by trying to get away from him, Jane exclaims: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” I’ve adapted the quote and made it plural in the hopes that it will speak to a multitude of issues. Similarly, I am hoping this column can speak to many experiences in being and doing feminism, whatever they may look like. However we identify, whoever we are, we are not birds.


Sources (in order by mention):



Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Edited by Richard J. Dunn, W. W. Norton and Company, 1987