Tag Archives: feminism

Feminist Theory and Interpersonal Neurobiology: A Natural Connection

 

Woman Statue

This is a draft “Brain Box” for the feminist theory and therapy chapter from our forthcoming Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy textbook.

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Feminist therapy is about connection.

So is neuroscience.

Neuroscience involves the study of synaptic interconnections, neural networks, brain structures and their electrochemical communications.

Feminist therapy involves egalitarian interconnection, empathy, mutual empathy, and empowerment of the oppressed, neglected, and marginalized.

As a highly sophisticated, interconnected entity, the human brain is metaphorical support for feminist theory and therapy. In the brain, cells don’t operate in isolation. In feminist therapy in general, and relational cultural therapy (RCT) in particular, isolation is unhealthy. Connection is healthy.

Healthy brains are connection-heavy. Whether humans are awake or asleep, brain cells are in constant communication; they problem-solve; they operate sensory and motor systems; they feedback information to and from the body, inhibiting, exciting, and forming a connected, communicating, community.

Using modern brain research as a foundation, Jordan (the developer of RCT) described how empathic relationships can change clients:

“Empathy is not just a means to better understand the client; in mutually empathic exchanges, the isolation of the client is altered. The client feels less alone, more joined with the therapist. It is likely that in these moments of empathy and resonance, there is active brain resonance between therapist and client (Schore, 1994), which can alter the landscape and functioning of the brain. Thus, those areas of the brain that register isolation and exclusion fire less and those areas that indicate empathic responsiveness begin to activate.”

Jordan is talking about how therapist-client interactions change the brain. Many others have made the same point: “It is the power of being with others that shapes our brain” (Cozolino, 2006, p. 9). In her review of RCT theory and outcomes, Frey (2013) emphasized that “research on mirror neurons, the facial recognition system, lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and the social functions of brain structures” (p. 181) supports feminist theory and feminist therapy process.

Neuroscience research is supportive of feminist therapy in ways that are both real and metaphorical. There is unarguably great potential here. However, before we wax too positive, it’s important to heed a warning. Beginning with Plato (at least) and throughout the history of time, the main way in which physical (or brain) differences between the sexes have been used is to marginalize females and undercut their viability as equal partners in the human race (see Brain Box 10.2). With that caveat in mind, let’s respect feminism with some multitasking: Let’s celebrate the positive parallels between human neurology and feminist theory, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on how neuroscience is being used to limit or oppress girls and women.

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A Guest Essay on the Girl Code and Feminism

The past several years I’ve offered a few extra credit points for students in my theories class who write me a short essay on the Girl Code. The Girl Code is defined–using William Pollack’s Boy Code as a guide–as the unhealthy societal and media-based rules by which girls and women are supposed to live. These rules are typically limiting (e.g., women who get angry are considered bitches) and are often damaging to girls and women.

This year students had to watch three feminist-related video clips as a part of this extra credit assignments and then write a short essay. The clips are listed below so you can click on the links and watch them if you like:

Eve Ensler doing a TED talk: Embrace Your Inner Girl — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhG1Bgbsj2w

Emma Watson speaking to the U.N.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9SUAcNlVQ4

Cameron Russell’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model?language=en

The following essay was written by Tristen Valentino. He gave me permission to post it here.

I’m featuring Tristen’s essay not only because I found it to be well-written and insightful, but also because his ideas stretch my thinking. Frequently I find myself puzzled as to why so many people in our society have such negative reactions to the word “feminist.” Why would anyone be against equal rights and opportunities for males and females? What’s the problem with that? In fact, this past year Time Magazine went so far as to suggest it be eliminated from the dictionary (inserted stunned silence here). For me, Tristen’s essay is important because, although he strongly criticizes what he sees as the overly generalized messages within the assigned video clips (which I happen to like), he also explicitly condemns the mistreatment of women based on gender.

Here’s Tristen’s essay. I hope you enjoy it . . . or at least find it thought-provoking.

Extra Credit Commentary on Feminism Clips
Tristen Valentino
COUN 485
November 24, 2014

Advocating equal rights is a noble and admirable pursuit. The video clips featuring Eve Ensler, Emma Watson, and Cameron Russell each speak about sexual discrimination, and their own personal roles in feminism. While I fully support equality in opportunity, and applaud their intention, I believe their execution was flawed. The three of them generalized men across the globe, lumping all men from all cultures and nations together in the oppression of women. The three of them claimed that male chauvinism is not only prevalent but pervasive in all societies.

Eve Ensler speaks briefly of her violent and abusive father and alludes that her experiences at the hands of her father set her in motion to help end the victimization of women. In this case I feel that Eve Ensler is looking at everything through the same tinted lens. In her world, the lens with which she views the world is completely blue (victimization of women), so when she looks upon the world she sees everything as blue. While not incorrect, since there are many things blue in the world, this view is incomplete as there are many things not blue. So too with her view on victimization and the causes of it.

Emma Watson’s speech appealed to emotion, but wilted under even slight pressure from a factual basis. She claimed that in her country (United Kingdom) women were oppressed and drew comparisons between the UK and African nations. She failed to mention that in her country the longest serving Prime Minister was a female (Margaret Thatcher) and that the longest living monarch, and second longest reigning monarch, is a female (Queen Elizabeth II).

Cameron Russell speaks about how damaging the media can be to female self-esteem and the female identity. She attributes insecurity, eating disorders, and other self-image issues with fantastical, and often fictional, portrayals of the female form. I find this to be incredibly hypocritical and disingenuous coming from someone who is an active participant in the very mechanism that she claims is doing harm to the female psyche.

However, those issues aside, the issue of gender equality is a serious one, and one that deserves our attention. There is little doubt that acts of female oppression and victimization are completely evil. There is no arguing that in some areas, horrible atrocities happen to women simply because they are women. This culture of male predatory behavior resulting in the victimization of women needs to be addressed and halted immediately. The damage that is caused is not always as easily seen and overt as physical injury. The mental and psychological injuries inflicted by the gender expectations of such things as the “Girl Code” apply pressure to already stressed women to perform up to a standard, and in such a way, as to be unrealistic. Expectations—such as women must always look pretty, must always be as thin as they can be, or must be sexy, but not too sexy—place the value of women on their physical appearance. It prevents their self-expression and their validation of life by stripping away the value of all their other qualities. Women are not objects to be used or abused at the whims of men. Women are not toys to be played with and then discarded. They are equal partners in the venture of life. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, and politicians. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, confidants, and mentors. They are strong, intelligent, indomitable, competent, and capable. They are all that and more. They are women. They are human.

Feminist Culture in Music

This afternoon I’m doing a guest lecture for Sidney Shaw on Feminist Theory and Therapy. In honor of this, I’m posting an excerpt from our “Study Guide” for Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. Here you go:

Most dominant cultural media is clearly NOT feminist. A quick perusal of movie trailers (which generally include men with guns and women quickly undressing because they’re so darn aroused by men with guns) or popular music filtering into the ears of our youth will affirm this not-so-radical-reality.

For this activity we were interested in music, films, and books that ARE feminist in orientation and so we conducted a non-random survey of participants on counseling and psychology listservs and online blogs. We simply asked: Please share your recommendations for first, second, and third wave feminist songs, films, and books (and then did a few online searches). Interestingly, the most significant finding was that listserv respondents clearly had a much stronger passion for music than anything else. We received only one book recommendation and one film recommendation. In contrast, we got flooded by song recommendations. Consequently, we decided to focus our survey specifically on songs and will leave the books and films for another project.

Before we get to our non-comprehensive and nonrandom feminist song list, we should briefly discuss the three waves of feminism . . . despite the fact that doing so may raise issues and stimulate debate. No doubt, individuals who experienced or are knowledgeable about each wave may take issue with the distinctions offered below. Nevertheless, here’ son look (Susan Pharr, 1997) at the evolution of feminism:

We are examining sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, ageism, ableism, and imperialism, and we see everything as connected. This change in point of view represents the third wave of the women’s liberation movement, a new direction that does not get mass media coverage and recognition. It has been initiated by women of color and lesbians who were marginalized or rendered invisible by the white heterosexual leaders of earlier efforts. The first wave was the 19th and early 20th century campaign for the vote; the second, beginning in the 1960s, focused     on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. Consisting of predominantly white middleclass women, both failed in recognizing issues of equality and empowerment for all women. The third wave of the movement, multi-racial and multi-issued, seeks      the transformation of the world for us all. (p.26)

If we go with Pharr’s distinctions, we would broadly categorize first, second, and third wave feminism as:

 

  1. Campaign for the vote
  2. The ERA and abortion rights
  3. Multi-racial, multi-issued world transformation

 

What’s problematic about this categorization is that it’s too darn simplistic. The vote, ERA, and abortion rights were key or central issues, but first and second wave feminists we know would take issue with the narrowness of this depiction and would rightly point to first and second wave feminist efforts at including—not marginalizing—minority groups.

With this in mind, although we initially anticipated creating a nuanced and organized Table with books, films, and songs tightly organized by their connection with a particular “feminist wave” we’ve now decided to make a less organized list of feminist-oriented songs that have inspired individual women and men. And while the less organized list is perhaps less satisfying to our more compulsive sides, it also provides freedom for you as a reader to listen to the music, appreciate or explore the various messages, and then categorize or refuse to categorize the songs based on your preference. In the end, we found ourselves a little surprised to find that this less categorical, more dimensional, and more personal approach feels more consistent with feminist ideals . . . ideals that focus on the personal as political and that assert that authority figures should resist the impulse to tell others what and how to think.

As you read through these recommendations we suggest you think about what songs hold meaning for you and why. Along with many of the recommendations listed, we also received explanations for why the particular song was meaningful—in a feminist way. There’s always space in any list for additions and subtractions and your personal additions and subtractions might help you create an inspiring feminist playlist for yourself.

One final caveat: When we searched online for top feminist songs and anthems, we came across the occasional angry blog or posting demonizing the feminist perspective. We found this a little creepy and a little fascinating. One example was a comment (we’re paraphrasing now) about the heathen feminists . . . who sing into microphones and sound systems all of which were ‘invented’ by men. We include this comment primarily to emphasize that, in fact, you also may find yourself having strong emotional reactions to the music or the lyrics or the preceding comment. If your reactions are especially strong, we recommend you conduct a feminist power analysis and/or have a discussion about your reactions with someone you trust (and who has a balanced feminist perspective).

 

Table 10.1: A List of Feminist Songs that Counselors and Psychotherapists have Found Inspiring

 

18 Wheeler – Pink

A Sorta Fairytale – Tori Amos

Alien She – Bikini Kill

All American Girl – Melissa Etheridge

Ampersand – Amanda Palmer

Androgynous – Joan Jett

Be a Man – Courtney Love

Beautiful Flower – India Arie

Beautiful Liar – Beyonce and Shakira

Been a Son – Nirvana

Black Girl Pain – Jean Grae and Talib Kweli

Butyric Acid – Consolidated

Can’t Hold Us Down – Christina Aguilera

Cornflake – Tori Amos

Crucify – Tori Amos

Daughter – Pearl Jam

Double Dare Ya – Bikini Kill

Express Yourself – Madman

Fixing her Hair – Ani Difranco

Glass Ceiling – Metric

God – Tori Amos

Gonna Be an Engineer – Peggy Seeger

Goodbye Earl – The Dixie Chicks

He Thinks He’ll Keep Her – Mary Chapin Carpenter

Hey Cinderella – Suzy Bogguss

Human Nature – Madonna

I am Woman – Helen Reddy

I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor

I’m a Bitch – Meredith Brooks

I’m Every Woman – Chaka Khan or Whitney Houston

It’s a She Thing – Salt and Peppa

Just a Girl – No Doubt

Man! I Feel Like a Woman – Shania Twain

Me and a gun – Tori Amos

My Old Man – Joni Mitchell

No More Tears – Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer

Not a Pretty Girl – Ani Difranco

Not Ready to Make Nice – The Dixie Chicks

One of the Boys – Katy Perry

Poker Face – Lady Gaga

Pretty Girls – Neko Case

Professional Window – Tori Amos

Promiscuous – Nelly Furtado

Rebel Girl – Bikini Kill

Respect – Aretha Franklin

Silent All these Years – Tori Amos

Sisters are Do – Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox

Sisters are Doing It for Themselves – Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics

Spark – Tori Amos

Stronger – Britney Spears

Stupid Girls – Pink

Superwoman – Alicia Keys

Swan Dive – Ani DiFranco

The Pill – Loretta Lynn

This Woman’s Work – Kate Bush

Why Go – Pearl Jam

Woman in the Moon – Barbra Streisand

Women Should be a Priority – Sweet Honey and the Rock

You Don’t Own Me – Lesley Gore

You Oughta Know – Alanis Morisette

Your Revolution – Sidebar

Through the Anger Looking Glass

This blog was originally posted on the psychotherapy.net website this past week. Psychotherapy.net is a great resource for counselors and psychotherapists . . . http://www.psychotherapy.net/blog/title/through-the-anger-looking-glass

Through the Anger Looking Glass

By John Sommers-Flanagan

A couple weeks ago on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” the focus was on the 50th anniversary of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. In this book Friedan raged against the status of women in the 1960s. Although millions of people have read this feminist manifesto, it seems very few presently understand how anger in general and Friedan’s anger in particular could be a source of insight, motivation, and personal and social transformation.

Anger is an emotional state that has a bad rap. There’s far more written about anger control (“anger management”) than about how anger, when nurtured and examined, can transform. As most mental health professionals already know, anger is an emotion, not a behavior. And emotions are acceptable and desirable. When anger fuels aggressive or destructive behavior is when it becomes problematic.

But since everyone already knows about and talks about the destructive capability of anger—let’s talk about the constructive side of this emotion instead. Hardly anyone articulates anger’s positive qualities as clearly as the feminists. Feminist therapists consider “encouraging anger expression” as a meaningful process goal in psychotherapy for at least five reasons:

  1. Girls and women are typically discouraged from expressing anger directly. Experiencing and expressing anger without repressive cultural consequences can be an exhilarating freedom for females. Similarly, experiencing anger, but not letting it become aggression, is a new and productive process for males.
  2. Anger illuminates. There’s nothing quite like the rush of anger as a signal that something is not quite right. Examined anger can stimulate insight.
  3. Alfred Adler suggested that the purpose of insight in psychotherapy was to enhance motivation. Anger is helpful for both identifying psychotherapy goals AND for mobilizing client motivation.
  4. During psychotherapy anger may occur in-session towards the psychotherapist. Skillful therapists accept this anger without defensiveness and then collaboratively explore the meaning of in-session anger.
  5. Anger is a natural emotional response to oppression and abuse. If clients consistently suppress anger, it inhibits them from experiencing their full range of humanity.

For feminists, one goal of nurturing and exploring client anger is to facilitate feminist consciousness. Feminist consciousness involves females (and males) developing greater awareness of equality and balance in relationships. However, using anger to stimulate insight and motivation is useful in all forms of therapy, not just feminist therapy.

But working with (and not against) anger in psychotherapy is complex. The problem is that anger pulls so strongly for a behavioral response. Reactive anger is destructive. Clients want to let it out. Experiencing and expressing anger feels so intoxicatingly right. Clients want to punch walls. They want to formulate piercing insults. They want to counterattack. Unexamined anger is reactive and vengeful.

Imagine a male client. He’s uncomfortable with how his romantic partner has been treating him. You help him explore these feelings and identify the source; he recognizes that his partner has been treating him disrespectfully. But good psychotherapy doesn’t settle for simple answers. His new insight without further exploration could stimulate retaliatory impulses. Good psychotherapy stays with the process and examines aggressive outcomes. It helps clients explore alternatives. Could he be overreacting? Perhaps the anger is triggering an old wound and it’s not just the partner’s behavior that’s triggering the anger?

Relationships are nearly always a complex mix of past, present, and future impulses and transactions. When anger is respected as a signal and clients take ownership of their anger, good things can happen. It can be used to help clients become more skilled at identifying and articulating underlying sadness, hurt, and disappointment. Clients can emerge from psychotherapy with not only new insights, but increased responsibility for their behavior and more refined skills for communicating feelings and thoughts without blaming anger, but in a way that serves as an invitation for greater intimacy and deeper partnership.

None of this would be possible without the clarifying stimulation of anger and a collaborative psychotherapist who’s able to help clients face, embrace, and understand the many layers of meaning underneath your anger. And it’s about time we learned a lesson from the feminists and started giving anger the respect it deserves.

A Tradition Like All Others

The big sports event of this past weekend was the Master’s Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, GA. As usual, the hyped advertising slogan included the phrase, “A tradition like no other.” This is especially ironic and basically such a good lie that would make post-modern theorists proud.

In fact, the Master’s is a tradition like nearly all other traditions. It’s run by an all male club that doesn’t allow women to be members and only allowed Blacks membership in 1990. It’s about money and power and exclusivity. According to Wikipedia (I know I’m not elevating my research reputation here), “. . . club co-founder Clifford Roberts is reputed to have said, ‘As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.'”

This year’s Master’s champion got $1,440,000. When Martha Burk tried protesting the tournament in 2004, tournament officials decided to air the entire tournament without commercials. This is just a taste of the money and power linked to these particular links.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like sports. I enjoy golf. I even get excited about watching a bit of the Master’s golf tourney on television. It’s good theater, a beautiful venue, and there are some amazing golfers out there. But it’s a little hard to justify Augusta not allowing women members. . . and I say this not because I think men only and women only organizations shouldn’t exist . . . but because excluding women from something that is so prestigious and so associated with money and power smacks too much of discrimination. When I watch the Master’s I always feel a little dirty. 

And so I’m hoping that one of these years an excellent golfer (think Tiger or Phil) will decide to skip a tourney held at a club that wouldn’t let their daughters, girlfriends, wives, mothers, or grandmothers be members. Somebody besides Martha Burk and this insignificant blogger should take a stand to do the right thing. Please pass this message the next time you bump into a great professional golfer.

Opening Thoughts on Feminism

This is the opening section from our feminist chapter in Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice — written with help from Maryl Baldridge, M.A.

For years, psychiatric journals have touted the salutary effects of antidepressants by printing “before” and “after” pictures showing a woman leaning on a mop looking despondently at her kitchen floor, and then happily mopping it after taking her medication.

—E. Kaschak, Engendered Lives (1992, p. 22)

At the American School Counselor Association National Conference in 2011, Georgie Bright Kunkel, a 90-year-old woman, delivered a keynote address. She bounded onto the stage—not looking a day over 80. She introduced herself as the oldest stand-up comic in Washington state (Was there an older stand-up comic somewhere else on the planet?). She proceeded to crack jokes about everything from sex to . . . well . . . sex, and then sex again. In the middle of her routine, she slipped in a serious story that went something like this:

I was working as a school counselor at an elementary school. To kick off our career day, I contacted a woman friend of mine who was an airplane pilot. She agreed to land her one-person plane in the middle of our schoolyard. We were all very excited. We gathered the students outside and watched as she guided the plane down and smoothly landed on the playground. The students crowded around as she emerged from the tiny plane, helmet in hand. When it became apparent she was a woman, one of our male students turned to me and asked, “Where’s the pilot?” It was clearly a one-person plane, but in this boy’s mind, men were pilots and women were stewardesses. This was a sad truth for many of our students. But what interested me more was the impact of this event on our students’ career ambitions. We had decided to take a student survey before and after career day. Before my friend landed on our playground, exactly 0% of our female students listed “airplane pilot” as one of their potential career choices. After career day, about 40% of the girls listed airline pilot as a career to consider in the future.

This is an example of a feminist working therapeutically to bring about development, change, options, and liberation. Feminist therapy can be transformative. It was designed, in part, to break down unhelpful stereotypes and free all humans to fulfill their potentials.