This past weekend I took a class called “Exploring Social Issues Through Drama.” As part of the class, we each chose a social issue to explore. I chose objectification of women, inspired by a female friend who told me about harassment she’d experienced that week. While on a packed train, a man took advantage of the situation and aggressively pressed himself against her. She didn’t say anything, just moved away, frightened she would only escalate the situation. No one on the train did or said anything. With her story heavy on my heart, I used the class time to explore this topic and how it affects all women, whether we realize it or not.
Ironically, this is the week that the photo of Kim Kardashian’s bare butt debuted, displaying quite clearly to the world that controversy is deeply imbedded in this issue. It should come as no surprise that women (and men) everywhere feel the need to address the photo shoot. And while talking about it is of course exactly what Kardashian intended, the issue has to be discussed. We are, as a culture, silent bystanders, watching a metaphorical (and all too real) sexual assault on the subway. It’s time to talk about it.
The facets of the issue are endless. Leaving aside for now the question of photoshop (related to objectification) and the disturbing connections to racism and sexism in photographer Jean-Paul Goode’s work and personal life, the question of objectification of the female body rises up front and center. What should be quite obvious is that Kardashian herself is the one doing the objectifying. Yes, she is part of a culture that puts immense pressure on women to buy into the role of sexual plaything, and yes she is responding to societal demand. But when it comes down to it, she is the one that took off her clothes.
I’ve realized recently that one of the biggest problems with the feminist movement is that it means so many different things to different people. There are many tenets of feminism that I identify with, and simply because I am a woman and care about women’s issues, I recognize that I can and should call myself a feminist. But there are also feminists who bare their butts on the covers of magazines, and pass it off as a step toward less body-shaming or toward sexual freedom. While I’ve never heard Kardashian explicitly call herself a feminist, women like Scout Willis and Chelsea Handler seem to be constantly on Instagram crusades to allow topless photos, and Beyonce has certainly identified quite strongly with the movement. (Though it gets sticky talking about Queen Bey, because that conversation tends to get intermixed with discussions of race and cultural expectations.)
The issue became crystal clear to me while talking with my brother, who I called during a break from my social issues class. I asked him what his response was to the feminist movement, and he replied, “Well, it depends on what you mean by that.” As we talked he expressed confusion about the stances of women; he felt he supported many of the arguments, but was unsure about many of the intentions and affiliations within the idea of feminism. Because there were so many voices with such divergent views, he was hesitant to claim the banner of feminism as something he could completely stand under.
In talking with my roommate, the matter became even more tricky. As a woman who works at a pub in midtown Manhattan, she is constantly being objectified, being told: “Come over here baby so I can grab that ass.” But her words gave me pause when she began to talk about how women treat themselves. She described the outfits girls wear on Halloween, and how they’re clearly expecting men to look at them in a sexual way on that night. “Girls want to be cute and sexy on Halloween, but then they want to walk down the street the next day and not get any comments. It’s like they want to be selectively objectified,” my roommate said.
I want to tread lightly here, because I do not mean to suggest that women should feel obliged to hide their bodies, or that they bear the responsibility of keeping men in line. And I certainly don’t want anyone to think a woman is ever “asking for it,” or any of the other justifications used for objectification, sexism and violence. But both my brother’s and my roommate’s comments have something pertinent to offer this messy business of Kim Kardashian’s butt (and boobs, apparently. If you buy the magazine and flip to the inside.)
How seriously would you take a man who exposed himself on the cover of a magazine?* I think this is an important thing to think about. I believe that bodies are beautiful and we should be proud of them, but there’s a cultural precedent built into society that indicates that it’s okay to display the female body for the delight of men. Kardashian’s photos support this flawed view, to say nothing of the dangers of the photoshopping involved in the photo.
As much as I hate to say it, those who desire change have to—at least somewhat—play by the rules of the dominant culture. There is a balance to be struck between stirring the pot and allowing people time and incentive to change their minds, and that change has to come from the heart. Just as guilt and shame are horrible motivators, rage and defiance don’t work either. If we are to build a culture in which men stop making comments about my “titties” on the street, and in which women feel their voices are heard and respected, women have got to stop playing into the stereotypes.
Kim Kardashian is not desperate—she’s not trying to make a living or a name for herself and being forced to use whatever means she can. She has an incredible amount of money and power, and a platform to say whatever she wants. Until women like her stop objectifying themselves, we are going to keep having these same conversations, over and over.
*Which, by the way, has happened—as is evident from articles such as this one. I need to note here that this isn’t exclusive to women, and men are playing into their stereotypes as well. It’s just far more common for women.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love to talk about the Myers-Briggs test, and those who love to hate on it. (And, I suppose, those who have never heard of it. But there are less of those.) I’ve known people who began by loving it later come to hate it, because the test has taken over their circles of friends, and because there are individuals who begin to see life decisions through the lens of the test (“Should I date that boy? No! I’m an ISFJ and he’s an ENFP. It would never work.”) A quick google search will come up with countless dating websites that explain in detail what each personality type would be like as a spouse, and how to interact with them. Obviously, the world of Myers-Briggs has gotten out of hand.
What makes the situation even more humorous is the fact that very few people actually take the real test; since you’d have to pay around $50 to take the official test, most people take a knock-off internet test that approximates the real one. So when someone looks a friend in the eye and says she understand everything about that friend’s soul based on a fake Myers-Briggs score, I can see why people have started to get jaded about the world of personality testing.
However, I am writing in defense of the Myers-Briggs test, and other personality tests. With some caveats, of course. While the test has the potential to become a self-centered exploration of all the various and fascinating aspects of YOU, I have also known friends who have found genuine healing in the discoveries they’ve made about themselves through the introspection and perspective the test provides. One of my friends grew up in an environment where people constantly told her to “Stop being so shy!” and rewarded her peers for being assertive. She struggled to understand why she couldn’t force herself to become comfortable being outspokenly friendly, until in her twenties she took the test, in an environment where her friends were also taking it, and discovered that lots of people have introverted tendencies, enjoy being alone, and aren’t naturally comfortable meeting new people or being outspoken. Learning this about herself allowed her a lot of freedom to grow and become more comfortable with the way she operates.
In my own life, the test has taught me quite a bit about accepting the differences between my friends and myself. I used to spend a lot of time being frustrated and hurt when friends bailed on me and flaked on plans (and of course I still am to a certain extent—that will never totally change). But when I discovered the difference between people with the J initial—who, by and large, are punctual, dependable planners—and the P initial—who tend to prefer keeping their options open and going with the flow—a world of understanding emerged for me. I don’t have to take it so personally if my Friend the P bails, because the more I understand about the way she operates, the more I realize that she can love me dearly and be a flakey person at the same time (not that it will be any less annoying in the moment.)
Like anything, the Myers-Briggs test can and has been taken too far. But it’s also a great way to begin to understand and empathize with friends, uncover more about the way you yourself operate, and build community. Just make sure you follow these simple rules:
1. Never think that a person is the sum of their Myers-Briggs test results. You’ll never know everything there is to know about a person, and you can’t put people in a box!
2. Never limit your work/friendship/dating options based on your Myers-Briggs test results. Especially if you haven’t taken the real test. That’s just silly.
3. Don’t get self-obsessed. The test is not an excuse for you to talk or think about yourself for hours. It’s just one way of identifying your tendencies.
And most importantly:
4. If you begin talking about the Myers-Briggs test and one (or all) or your companions doesn’t want to talk about it—STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m getting older, or if there’s something specific to the way NYC has been shaping me, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about being able to just be who I am. At this point, while I will always continue to change and grow, I am settling into the woman I am and the way I’ve been shaped. The process of questioning myself doesn’t end, but there are some things I know, and I want to have the ability to just be.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to art, and to being a Christian. I am much less worried about being a Christian than I have ever been before in my life, and that strikes me as encouraging and also kind of embarrassing. This is who I am, and yet for most of my life (and there are still many moments) I’ve been worried about how people will treat me, or what they’ll think, or how they might misperceive my beliefs. But I’m starting to believe deep in my core that it’s okay to just be. I am a Christian. It’s who I am. It’s okay.
And I am an artist. This post is about why I am starting to question the label “Christian artist.” This is not the first time I’ve questioned it, but it’s the first time I’m putting it into words. Questions about it have crossed my mind several times recently, most recently when I came across this article about Switchfoot and their contention of the label “Christian band.” (I know this is an old article. But hey, I’ve been busy.) When asked if they are a Christian band, their lead singer, Jon Foreman, says:
"To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed."
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling oneself a Christian artist. But I agree with Foreman that there are certain unfair expectations that arise with the label. Like erroneously expecting a pastor to be more pure than his congregation, expecting an artist who is a Christian to only ever create art specifically referencing Christ is severely limiting. Would you expect a bank teller to make a Jesus reference to every customer who comes up to his booth? Or a journalist to work a Biblical narrative into each byline? And yet Christians who are artists are often unfairly expected to reference Christ in every piece of work they create.
The genesis of this, I believe, is complicated. I would argue that it is partly cultural, and partly theological. Culturally speaking, it’s closely tied to the fact that in many parts of the West, and certainly in the United States, the cultural consciousness surrounding art is unhealthy. I’ve written about this before, but because art is considered a luxury, only as good as its entertainment value, and primarily an industry--not as a way to share stories and therefore an integral part of life--artists tend to feel the need to heavily justify their decisions to be artists, whether in a monetary sense or otherwise.
Theologically, the matter is complicated by the fact that most art in the West during the Middle Ages revolved around the church. In addition, during the Reformation Christians developed the idea that any kind of art during worship needed to be heavily justified, and as art became more important outside of the church, this trickled down into art outside of worship as well. Today, these cultural and theological pressures often take the shape of artists telling their Christian friends that they are pursuing art so that they can either “bear witness in a secular industry,” or use their art as a platform for proclaiming the name of Jesus. Neither of which is a bad thing. But, I would argue, neither of which should be the primary goal in being an artist.
As Christians, we are called to bear witness first and foremost in every aspect of our lives. That is certain. But that is true for every Christian, no matter what profession, and it does not always take the form of explicitly naming the name. In some fields, like my father’s field as a physicist, it never does. The great thing about art is that it can take that form. But it doesn’t have to.
There is no need to justify a career in the arts any more than to justify a career in plumbing. Art is inherent to humans, and storytelling begins as soon as speech does. As Christians, sometimes we speak in our daily life about how much we love Jesus, and sometimes we speak about how much we love coffee. Artists should be free to speak about either as well. And really, there is a lot of laziness that has come about because of the concept of “Christian artists.” There are many beautiful pieces of sacred art, or stories about Christian experiences that are heartfelt and important. The Biblical narrative is woven through all of us, as Christians, and it should come out of our pores. But there are also plenty of pieces of horribly lazy art and stories with the name of Jesus plastered on simply because there is a market for it.
Artists who are Christians cannot be lazy. They cannot rely on a market, as many have. It’s much more difficult to tell a diversity of stories, some of which specifically name Jesus, and some of which don’t, and it’s difficult to interact at all times with a world that holds different beliefs and values and find ways to create and converse with artists outside the Christian faith. But it’s important. It’s a command, to all believers.
In the same way, Christians who are not artists must refuse to be lazy as well. It’s much easier to rely on a Christian label or art industry to provide entertainment and enjoyment, for us and for our kids. But we are called to engage in the world, and to feel the pulse of its heart. Doing the work of evaluating art--by artists who are both Christian and not--is important. Some of it you’ll have to throw away. Some of it will touch you deeply. And that’s good.
The bottom line is that we are Christians first, and that changes the way we think, speak and breathe. But once it gets into our blood and marrow, we as artists don’t need to be constantly questioning our profession. We fix our eyes on Jesus, and trust in the process of sanctification. Sometimes that means we’ll create art that speaks intimately of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and sometimes it means we’ll write a comedy sketch about the bus stop. Whatever project we’re working on, let’s not be afraid to just be.
*My brother Daniel recommended a book called Art and the Bible by Francis Shaeffer to me recently, which apparently speaks directly to this. Worth checking out!
This summer has been a series of emotional ups and downs. From the beginning of June, when my internship ended, to, well, now, I have been in a continuous state of limbo as far as what my life this upcoming year will be like, and whether the dreams and plans I have for my life will, down the road, be possible. It’s been very uncomfortable, and stressful. But I’ve been learning.
At the end of my senior year of college, my acting teacher Mark Lewis gave me some great advice—to allow myself to slow down. To do something meaningful, of course. But to take the time to figure out where I was meant to be, and what I should be doing. In his words: “You should be able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’ll have a cup of tea today.’ And do it.” I started crying when he said those words. And that told me something very important about myself—that I needed to follow his advice and give myself some breathing room apart from the non-stop world of college.
I did a theater internship part time, and to make some money I worked as a nanny. I was blessed to have two great families and four incredible children to nanny. And as I worked at both these “filler” jobs—an internship that didn’t pay me and as a nanny with no benefits—I began to have my first doubts about the way we, as Christians, use the word “calling.” If you had asked me a year ago what my calling was, I probably would have said that it was to be an acting teacher. But as the year went on and I opened my heart to the children I spend time with every week, I started to question the use of that word.
By referring to our careers as our “callings,” I think we misinterpret the real meaning of God’s calling in our lives. As I spent time with Ruby and Miles and Zane and Andrew, the children I have gotten to know and love, I recognized that my career will not be as their nanny. But I am convinced that my “calling,” during the time that I watch them, is to be their nanny. I have come to believe that our calling is not our dream career, or even the career that best uses our talents and skills. Our calling is to be doing whatever it is we are doing right now, in this moment as we are breathing and thinking and loving. Our calling is to serve God through our actions, and to become more like him, whatever we are doing.
As I grew more and more sure of this, and as my internship ended and I was faced with the fact that I was still nannying, but was no longer working for a theater, my eyes began to open to the way I think about myself, and the things I have to do to get approval. My goal is to be an acting teacher. That will not change. God has given me the skills and the training to be an acting teacher, and I intend to pursue those opportunities. But while I waited, and waited, and waited for schools to respond to me, and things to happen, I got to see a pretty clear glimpse of what I think is important. What I really think, when it comes down to it—not what I say I think, or think I think. And it shocked me how many of my decisions are based on the way I think people think of me, or things that I think people think I should have or do. (See. It’s so messed up it’s even hard to understand grammatically.)
Things like living at home, or driving a beater car, or being on my parents’ health insurance. Or being a nanny. Feeling like I had to apologize every time I told someone what I did for a living, or add a long story about what I really want to do. And I had to ask myself when we as a culture began to decide which jobs you have to apologize for, and which ones you don’t. When did it stop being about the fact that I am a really good nanny, and the children I watch are being served by my efforts?
I don’t want to get on a soapbox. Trust me, I know what it’s like to get a college degree and be frustrated about not using it like I envisioned. But the point is, whatever we’re doing, if we’re doing it well, we are using that degree. We 20-somethings have been trained to look ahead and push forward, and we’ve also been told that we can do whatever we want. I don’t know whether we were also told that we can do it immediately, but we definitely act like we should. And I’m just not sure that—especially as Christians—we should be ashamed of the “filler” jobs most of us have to do while we chart our career paths.
I love nannying. I won’t be a nanny forever—for one thing, I wouldn’t have benefits, and for another, I have been given an opportunity to be trained as an actress, and I believe I should use that training. But if I was a nanny forever, my life would be just as worthwhile. I don’t know if we’ll ever truly believe that—if we as a culture can ever value something like nannying as highly as something like being a doctor (and I am certainly not downplaying the importance and skill of doctors.) But as Christians, we absolutely should. We are all given one calling—to worship God by becoming more like him. What career we choose is second to that. Because no matter what we do, we are called to give everything we have, whole-heartedly, to our occupation. And that is worth thinking about.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard