Author Archive for


American Able

(This is a repost from this site:

This photo shoot/idea/execution is a tad bit incredible.

American Able

Imagine this: you’re headed towards a bus stop on your daily commute to work. You notice a gigantic advertisement plastered on the side of the bus shelter – a young, thin, blonde woman wearing nothing but striped socks and a pair of underwear. It’s not even 8 :30 in the morning yet, and you’re sighing at the sight of a woman objectified and hyper-sexualized, all in the name of advertising. How cliché. The problem isn’t even necessarily the fact that she’s half-naked, it’s more that you’re sick of seeing the same kind of woman sexualized in these boring, uncreative ways. What’s even worse is that the fine print of the ad tells you that this is not, in fact, a professional model but rather an every day, average gal. Just like you! Ah, American Apparel strikes again, you tell yourself. As if this speaks to my life.

In my reality, all kinds of people are sexy and sexual: People who identify as queer, as disabled, as trans, as fat, and generally, as awesome. But in this world of American Apparel and various other “real beauty” ad campaigns making claims of representing the “average woman,” I never see myself or the kinds of people I know. It still doesn’t speak to my reality, and I’m sure it doesn’t speak to a lot of other people’s realities as well.

Luckily, if Holly Norris and Jes Sachse have anything to do with it, that reality might slowly be changing. This May, riders of the TTC in Toronto will bear witness to the critical sass created by photographer Holly Norris who teamed up with her then-roommate and poet/photographer/pornographer Jes Sachse to satirize the notorious American Apparel ad campaings in a witty, sex-positive way. Their spoofs of the ads, titled American Able, will be shown on television screens in subway stations across the city as part of the Contact Toronto What’s the Hype? Exhibition.

One of the most effective ways for feminists to constructively criticize the fashion industry and their problematic ad campaigns is with humour. Many of us have seen Sarah Haskins’ Target Women videos, which are probably the best known contemporary examples of criticizing the rampant stereotyping and sexism that goes on in advertising while simultaneously making you laugh your ass off. Holly and Jes’ thoughtful and witty takeup of American Apparel’s notorious ad campaigns is just another way to think about how (and which) women are presented and sold to us in the advertising industry.

To talk a bit about why a photo series like American Able is needed, I caught up with these old friends to ask them a few questions.

Tell me a bit about your goal with this project and how you came up with it.

Holly: Originally, it was just a project for a Women and Pop Culture class at Trent University in 2008. While working on the assignment, I saw a photograph on Facebook of the Fat Femme Mafia in a change room wearing tight, shiny American Apparel tracksuits. It got me thinking about how different bodies look in clothing, and how we only see one specific kind of body in advertisements. I had been living with Jes that summer, and we had started talking about disabilities and difference. She does a bit of modeling so I asked her if she could model for this little ad thing I was doing for class and it just grew from there.

Jes: Holly was taking Women and Pop Culture I think? We’d lived together during the summer of 2008 and had some shitty experiences that got us talking about disability politics. Holly was relatively new to critical dis theory, and would ask me lots of questions, which got us into great conversations. The shoot was Holly’s idea, but the actual process was collaborative. The second set was all my own clothing, much of which was American Apparel. The poses were all me, some of the ideas, and the general attitude was mine. But Holly is the genius behind the lens.

There are so many sexist ad campaigns out there. Why single out American Apparel?

Holly: First off, on their ads there are often little blurbs like “Sarah is a student in New York…”, so they are positioning their models as representative of ‘regular people.’ However, they all fit into a specific idea of what a “regular woman” is. More practically speaking, for me as a photographer, it is easier to spoof their advertisements because they have that notable style with on-location shoots, simple cotton basics (which is half of my closet anyway), and helvetica font. It is a lot easier to recreate their ads as there is no need for a studio or for high fashion.

Jes: God. American Apparel is sexy. I dunno about Holly but I love their style. Its andro and ‘basic’ and hipster. Lots of lyrca, lots of ‘your body as is’ type clothing. However, model and sales-clerk wise? Tall, skinny, white people. The usual. The fact that AA is hyper-sexual appeals to me. The fact that the lens isn’t really on an empowered body, is less appealing. Sexy sells. But why does sexy always seem to intersect with misogyny? Ultimately, AA is a popular brand of choice for hipsters, many of whom are educated and/or are familiar with the provocative nature of their ads. American Able doesn’t mock from the outside. It mocks from the inside. I like that.

What do you hope people will take away from the American Able series?

Holly: I’m really interested in where it will be seen. It is showing on digital screens that are typically ad space, and has the potential to make people do a double take and question what they are seeing and how it differs from a regular ad. I think the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why – why do they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising? People with visible disabilities are rendered invisible by mass media, and I think the reactions to American Able really highlight that. Even when there are claims of ‘diversity’ it is usually really lacking, to say the least. One rarely sees people with disabilities in advertising, unless it’s in a group photo and then it often seems more tokenizing than anything else.

Jes: It’s Holly’s project, but personally? I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes? I’d love to be a model. I love designers and fashion, it’s art on bodies. I guess I love modeling because I feel like I embody a piece of that stare in my own work. That “I see you lookin’ at me” stare. I know I don’t look like a stereotypical model, and I like my body, but I get stared at a lot, in a different way. So when I pose, I have the opportunity to engage with my voyeurs. Or act indifferent about their gaze. Or make them question the politics in their stare. Or seduce them. Or pierce them. It’s really fun.

The first thing I took away from the photos was a mischievous, sexy sense of humour. What do you think about the place of humour in criticizing media of an oppressive nature? Do you think it is more or less effective than, say, boycotts, or other more traditional activist approaches?

Holly: I don’t think it’s necessarily more or less effective, it’s simply a different venue for activism. I like it. The images won’t ask you to sign their petition or join them on the streets, but you can sit and look and develop your own thoughts and opinions. And then I hope it will inspire people to at the very least be more critical of the advertising they are usually bombarded with. Spoofs point out the problems with advertising that one might not otherwise identify. It’s a really interesting space. I really like looking at spoof advertisements; I love Adbusters and that sort of thing. We live in this culture where we are so bombarded by advertisements that it would be strange not to respond or react to it. I am so excited to be putting American Able in a space where we would otherwise be seeing corporate advertisements over and over again. I am hoping it will make people ask, “why am I not seeing ads like these? Why are bodies like Jes’s not seen in major ad campaigns?”

Jes: Humour is my life. On the surface, it’s easy to take me less seriously because of it, but humour also gets you in the door in a way that a rebellious placard never will (lamentably). Me boycotting AA is ridiculous. You show me a fashion line that rocks my disability politics. None of ‘em do! I’ll wear what I want to, because my body, like everything else, contradicts itself.

Interview by Julia Caron. To hear more from Holly and Jes about American Able, stay posted on Julia’s personal blog à l’Allure Garçonnière.


I Now Pronounce You Mrs. Lady Gaga and Husband

As I watch the sunny weekends of my summer calendar book up with wedding after wedding, I’m consistently curious to know if the bride-to-be is getting a new name with the transaction.

Many of these women I know are knee-deep in their careers and have quite a nice google return on their birth names. But what happens if they choose to change it? Will their personality and identity split online and the past accomplishments get folded into and recognized only by the way-back-machine? Or will getting a new name save them from the discovery by future employers of a salty picture or two from a holiday party run amok in their 20s? All these things and more, I wonder.

Below is an article from Jezebel which on some level seems to add one more tick to the CON pile of taking another’s name. The study itself is spurious, but many of the ideas behind it are still clearly relevant and unsolved.  If any of you dear female readers are married, I’d be curious to know if you’ve taken a new name, kept your own, and what ramifications (if any) have been directly related to that decision?

Take Your Husband’s Name And Take A Salary Cut

Take Your Husband's Name And Take A Salary CutTaking a husband’s name may mean taking a hit in the labor market, according to a recent study. But lower salary isn’t the only ill effect women suffer when they switch surnames — or, conversely, when they don’t.

According to Catherine Rampell of the Times Economix Blog, researchers at the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research gave Dutch university students descriptions of women that were identical, except for the women’s decision to take their husband’s names. Women who did so, the economists found, were seen as more “stereotypically feminine” — the students perceived them as “more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name.” And in another experiment, the students were less likely to hire these women for a hypothetical job, and estimated their salaries as lower (by about $1,172.36).

As Rampell points out, the study has limitations. The students, for instance, were not actual employers. And as commenter Barbara notes, real bosses rarely have access to information about whether a woman has changed her name. Moreover, commenter Jennifer cites an effect of name-change not covered by the study — the loss of an online paper trail of publications and achievements under the previous name. She writes,

I’m interested to know more about the negative consequences of changing one’s name and then “vanishing” from sources of past accomplishments that would otherwise be searchable on-line (what employer doesn’t google their prospective applicant) or through other publications. In this case, the woman must either (a) continually cite her previous name to maintain the digital trail, or (b) accept that the advantages of having a digital trail may be lost.

Salon‘s Lynn Harris chose to solve this by keeping her birth name as her byline while using her married name in other situations. But even this compromise won’t work for everyone. Interestingly, Rampell chose to illustrate her post with a picture of Hillary Clinton, who had trouble in the presidential primaries in part because she was perceived as stereotypically un-feminine. Imagine how much more criticism she would have gotten for her supposed stridency had she run as Hillary Rodham.

Name-changing is still one of the many areas where society gets women going and coming. If you take your husband’s name, you must be dependent and incompetent. If you don’t, of course, you’re a ball-busting feminist — or that even more pitiable creature, someone without a husband at all. And, in most cases, you still have a name that came down to you patrilineally anyway. Luckily, there is one woman who’s thrown off the chains of the nomenclature patriarchy and received only praise for it. I speak, of course, of Lady Gaga.

(This is a re-post of a piece from Jezebel yesterday by Anna North)


Lady Writes The Blues: The Life Of Rose McCoy

If ever there was an era I wished I was at my prime in other than now, it was always the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Specifically, I wished I was one of the hit songwriters up on one square block in New York City: 1619 Broadway. Morning meetings would be as boozed up as they appear in Mad Men, and I’d spend the day with a team of clever people finding rhymes for turquoise and corduroys, and the evenings scrawling lyrics on cocktail napkins overheard at bars.

It hadn’t dawned on me until hearing this excellent radio story from the fantastic folks of Radio Diaries that it would have been possible to have had this dream, and realized it then, as a woman. (Let alone a woman of color). Rose Marie McCoy(now an octogenarian) made that possibility her reality.

NPR’s All Things Considered recently ran this delightful 13 minute piece. And first in the comment section on the web page was this offering:

Billy Joe Conor (BillyJoe) wrote:

“As Rose Marie McCoy’s writing partner, I can assure you that Rose has never stopped writing. We collaborated on all the songs in my current new-country music debut CD titled Billy Joe Conor and we’re now writing songs for my next CD.

All the qualities we admire such as patience, kindness and generosity Rose has in abundance. Every day I thank God for her and for having made her part of my life.”



All The Single Dames

In honor of/preparation for our next gathering to discuss our current read from a bygone era, Valley of The Dolls, comes this advice. Click HERE for more where this came from.



Origins of Ms.

Ben Zimmer wrote an interesting column in the NYTimes Sunday magazine about the origins of the word “Ms.” which I’ve cut and pasted below.
I’m on the side of using “Ms.” in all situations (unless a lady makes known she has a preference). I’m curious about when age factors into the usage of Mrs. or Miss or Ma’am or or Ms, which isn’t included in the article. Whenever I’m called “Ma’am” it makes me feel much older than when someone mistakenly uses “Mrs.” for some reason. Any ladies out there have a distinct preference or disdain for the many titles that are used to  differentiate our marital status or age? Holler back, Ms.
Published: October 23, 2009

In the Nov. 10, 1901, edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., tucked away in an item at the bottom of Page 4, an unnamed writer put forth a modest proposal. “There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill,” the writer began. “Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.”

How to avoid this potential social faux pas? The writer suggested “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” namely, Ms. With this “simple” and “easy to write” title, a tactfully ambiguous compromise between Miss and Mrs., “the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.” The writer even gave a pronunciation tip: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

The item in the Springfield paper made a minor splash, getting picked up and discussed over the next few weeks in other newspapers around the country, from Iowa to Minnesota to Utah. As 1901 drew to a close, however, the Ms. proposal faded from the public eye — though it seems to have made enough of an impression to lurk just below the radar for decades to come. In 1932, it reappeared: a letter writer in The New York Times wondered if “a woman whose marital status is in doubt” should be addressed as M’s or Miss. And in 1949, the philologist Mario Pei noted in his book “The Story of Language” that “feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, ‘Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’).”

The genesis of Ms. lay buried in newspaper archives until earlier this year, when after much painstaking hunting through digitized databases I found The Sunday Republican article that started it all. A few years ago I stumbled upon a mention of the article in another newspaper, The New Era, of Humeston, Iowa, on Dec. 4, 1901. Fred Shapiro, the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” then found an excerpt from The Sunday Republican article in The Salt Lake Tribune. After discovering that The Sunday Republican had recently been scanned and digitized by Readex, a publisher of digital historical materials, I was finally able to zero in on this forgotten document.

Though Pei identified the early proponents of Ms. as feminists, the Republican writer (most likely a man) presented the argument for the title as one of simple etiquette and expediency. As the linguist Dennis Baron recounts in his 1986 book “Grammar and Gender,” these considerations remained the driving force in the 1950s, when some guides to business correspondence offered Ms. as a stopgap solution. Fraily and Schnell’s “Practical Business Writing” of 1952, for instance, recommended it as a title “that saves debating between Miss and Mrs.” Two years later, Brown and Doris’s “Business Executive’s Handbook” briefly noted that “a few business concerns now use ‘Ms.’ ” Outside of secretarial circles, however, Ms. remained largely unknown.

It was certainly unknown, in 1961, to Sheila Michaels, a 22-year-old civil rights worker in New York City, who one day spotted it on a piece of mail that her roommate received. In fact, she initially took it as a typo, albeit a felicitous one. Fiercely independent, Michaels abhorred having her identity defined by marriage. Struck by Ms., she became a one-woman lobbying force for the title as a feminist alternative to Miss and Mrs. She even unwittingly replicated The Republican’s rationale for pronouncing Ms. as “mizz,” since she had noticed this ambiguous spoken form when she was a child growing up in St. Louis.

For several years her fellow activists evinced little interest. The turning point, Michaels told me recently, came when she was interviewed on the progressive New York radio station WBAI in late 1969 or early 1970. The program “Womankind” invited her on with other members of a radical group known simply as the Feminists, and during a lull in the show she plunged into her impassioned plea for Ms. Her advocacy finally paid off. The following August, when women’s rights supporters commemorated the 50th anniversary of suffrage with the Women’s Strike for Equality, Ms. became recognized as a calling card of the feminist movement.

Just days before the national demonstration, on Aug. 24, Gloria Steinem registered her approval in her “City Politic” column in New York magazine. “Personally,” she wrote, “I’m all in favor of the new form and will put it on all letters and documents.” Still, she was uncertain about the pronunciation: “An airline clerk asked me, ‘Miss or Mrs.?’ on the phone, and I was stumped. How the hell do you pronounce Ms.?” By the time Steinem and her colleagues introduced Ms. magazine in 1971, both the “miss” and “mizz” pronunciations were considered acceptable — with “mizz,” the “bucolic” form in the 1901 proposal, eventually winning out in common usage.

In some quarters, recognition of Ms. was slow in coming. The New York Times waited until 1986 to announce that it would embrace the use of Ms. as an honorific alongside Miss and Mrs. Eighty-five years after The Sunday Republican’s unassuming contribution to our modern lexicon, The Times admitted that the “void in the English language” had been filled.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer of, an online destination for word lovers. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary.


Tacos, Gelato, and A Woman In Berlin

The Tigress Readers gathered together last week over Mexican food followed by coffee and gelato, to discuss our latest read, A Woman in Berlin.


It was a but of a departure from the last book we read, American Wife, not for lack of sex – as both books featured quite a lot of coupling. But instead of a romantic, titillating romp with an up-and-coming politician, A Woman In Berlin centered around the politics of war and the dark side to sex – namely, rape.

The book is an unflinching account of one woman’s experience of 8 weeks in Berlin during the Red Army occupation in the Spring of 1945. The author chose to remain anonymous to protect herself when her diaries became released as a book. She was a very well-learned woman who worked as a journalist in Berlin when the city underwent its siege by Russian troops.

Her supremely observant and detailed day-by-day accounts of what it was like to go from normalcy to mass rapes, food shortages and chaos is in many ways incredibly mundane, but taken as a whole, is pretty chilling. I’m not usually attracted to books or movies about war as in the past I’ve found this genre to generally glorify or romanticize war and feature men almost exclusively. This isn’t to say there aren’t realistic, every-day people accounts to be found – I just haven’t stumbled across any until reading this book. 

I found the author’s examination of the war and how it effected her city, the folks in her building and her own sense of self fascinating. One of the realizations she has deals with the changing landscape of war. Prior to the World Wars, men used to go off and fight each other on a battle field. While they were fighting to protect what mattered most (their country, family and homes), their wives and children and family were safe at home. But the dynamics of war changed. In 1945, men were going and fighting in another country, city or town to destroy what mattered most to other men (their countries, families and homes). This left a city like Berlin totally ready for destruction when the Russians came in that spring of 1945. German men were off on another front, and the German women and families became victims of mass rapes, bombs, food shortages and murder. I’d never considered this point before reading this book, but it just made it all the more senseless that war happens at all. Everyone comes home irreparably damaged, to those who stayed behind who have by then also become irreparably damaged. No matter who “wins” it’s always a net loss. 

The rape situation in Berlin during those weeks of occupation was startling as it took place on a mass scale. Mothers began hiding their daughters in floorboards, some women began using costume makeup and clothing to look old and unattractive. But those who were left untouched were the rare exception. Most of the women the author is in contact with – from the very young to the very old, were violated. Rape became so commonplace that the typically reserved and conservative German women began conversations with “how many times?” This created an oddly public dialogue for a short while about the situation and seemed to have shifted the psychological damage and shame of keeping rape private. But after the war and the occupation ended, the shame and conservativism replaced those brief weeks of a mass experience. No one talked about it anymore. I can’t help but wonder how many Germans born after that time are actually of Russian descent.

I took a lot away from this book and continue to mull on some of the concepts – the Germans as victims of WWII, the psychological strength of women and weakness of men in wartime situations and how people are capable of almost anything given the right or wrong circumstances.

And quite coincidentally, there’s a screen adaptation of the book out in select theaters right now. Some of us might go see it this weekend.


A Voice of One’s Own

I came across this amazing recording of Virginia Woolf – the inaugural writer of our book club. According to the youtube blurb associated with this video, this is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. It is part of a BBC radio broadcast from April 29th, 1937. The talk was called “Craftsmanship” and was part of a series entitled “Words Fail Me”.

To me, hearing her actual voice is incredibly gratifying. She’s confident in her diction, sure of her ideas and has such a lovely lilting cadence that makes me want to read A Room of One’s Own again with this very voice in mind. And besides that, what she has to say is unsurprisingly, rather brilliant.