Commentary Media

The Fault in Our Media

Briana Dixon

Sexual pleasure can be a taboo subject in our society almost everywhere but in our entertainment, where it is arguably overdone. But even in our media, sex seems to be the sole privilege of young, white, single, and non-disabled people. That's what makes John Green's The Fault in Our Stars so remarkable.

Briana Dixon will start her third year at Spelman College in the fall and is one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

I don’t often watch movies for the sex scenes, but that’s what I found myself doing during The Fault in Our Stars.

It was one of my top three “God, I hope they don’t screw this up” scenes, right up there with Anne Frank’s house and The Last Good Day. I nervously anticipated the movie adaptation’s take on what I considered an iconic moment, unsure if it would hold up to the scene in the book. As a reproductive justice advocate, I had a vested interest in whether or not they would get this right: This was a rare opportunity to see a sex scene between two people with disabilities done brilliantly, and I was terrified the TFIOS film team wouldn’t capitalize it.

We live in an era when we are constantly inundated with media, from our televisions to our cell phones. On average, Americans consume 60 hours of media a week, and with such constant exposure it’s almost impossible to say that we aren’t affected by the recurring images appearing on the various screens we watch daily.

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Often those images are of young, white people without disabilities in every situation you can imagine, while minorities are left by the wayside. Representation has become an important issue as we fight to make sure that the diversity of humanity is accurately portrayed. We have made amazing strides in recent years, but there is still room for improvement.

Often people with disabilities are subjected to what Tom Shakespeare called the medical model of representation, where the character’s impairment is the driving force of their characterization and the audience is denied the opportunity to empathize with them as people. Paul Hunt, in 1999, identified ten common caricatures of people with disabilities, including “the disabled person as (1) pitiable and pathetic, (2) as an object of curiosity or violence, (3) as sinister or evil, (4) as the super cripple, (5) as atmosphere, (6) as laughable, (7) as her/his own worst enemy, (8) as a burden, (9) as non-sexual, and (10) as being unable to participate in daily life.” None of these representations allow characters with disabilities to be as nuanced and as developed as the people whom they represent deserve.

But, The Fault in Our Stars diverges from these stereotypes by portraying its characters as fully as possible.

Here’s a quick summary of TFIOS: The main characters are Hazel, her boyfriend Augustus “Gus,” and their best friend Isaac. In addition to having cancer, each character has a physical disability as a result of his or her illness: Hazel must constantly be connected to a breathing machine, Augustus has a prosthetic leg, and Isaac is blind. But this is not where these characters’ personalities end.

Hazel is an incredibly intelligent, (justifiably) moody, empathetic, and kind 16-year-old girl who doesn’t completely understand infinity in a mathematical sense, but still manages to make a great metaphor out of it. Augustus is a brash and brave boy who is incredibly loyal and tends to use big words incorrectly. Isaac is a witty and funny romantic who has a propensity for video games.

John Green, the author of TFIOS, creates characters whose disabilities shade their lives instead of dictate them, where the reader/viewer is never allowed to deny the characters’ humanity nor forget their disabilities. This is especially apparent as it comes to the characters love lives, and by extension, their sex lives.

Though many characters with disabilities are written as inherently non-sexual, John Green doesn’t deny his characters their right to be sexual beings. One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Hazel and Augustus take advantage of Augustus’ wish from the “Genies” (a fictionalization of the Make-a-Wish Foundation) and they go to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten, an author Hazel idolizes and whom Hazel and Augustus have been corresponding. In Amsterdam the couple consummate their love. It’s not a particularly erotic scene, more awkward than anything else, but it’s beautiful nonetheless because it’s so realistic.

It is in these scenes where Green’s ability to artfully portray teens with disabilities really shines: The moment when Hazel and Augustus have to navigate around Hazel’s breathing tube doesn’t overshadow the moment where they are kissing in the hallway, nor does the moment when Augustus panics over Hazel seeing where his leg tapers off take away from when Hazel and Augustus take off their clothes in Augustus’ bed. Green writes a sex scene that explores what sex means for these two teenagers, neither shying away from nor fetishizing their disabilities. He even has a scene where Augustus pulls out a condom! As a reproductive justice advocate, I was pleased after reading this moment in the book, and I was anxious to see how it would translate in the film. Would they get the awkwardness right and ignore the disability? From the commercials, it seemed like a possibility.

And so I sat in the theater with my overpriced nachos and contraband lemonade, enjoying the movie, and waiting for the scene. When it came, I was pleased: They kept the banter about Augustus’ leg, the breathing tube bit totally worked, and they topped it all off with this beautiful slow pan of Hazel and Augustus wrapped up in the hotel covers, both Gus’ amputated leg sans prosthetic and Hazel’s breathing tube clearly visible.

The movie was not without its flaws, of course. It was severely lacking in people of color. The only named (and in focus) character of color was Dr. Maria, Hazel’s Black doctor, whose opinion on Hazel traveling to Amsterdam is initially overridden by a white male doctor. Though Dr. Maria’s opinion reigns in the end, it is worth noting that film is a visual medium and visually the Black doctor was still depicted in such a way where she was subordinate to a white male. In the book, the race of Dr. Maria isn’t mentioned, nor the races of the other children in support group who also have cancer. Nor is there any discussion of children with cancer who aren’t from middle class families in either the book or the movie. And it was disappointing to see they hadn’t included Augustus pulling out a condom in the film. However, even with these flaws, the movie was quite impressive.

Sexual pleasure can be a taboo subject in our society almost everywhere but in our entertainment, where it is arguably overdone. But even in our media, sex seems to be the sole privilege of young, white, single, and non-disabled people. The denial of sexual pleasure in media to anyone but this select group feeds back in the problem of underrepresentation. But the denial of sexual pleasure in our lives is a topic that affects our livelihoods.

Mitchell Tepper argues that sexual pleasure “can enhance an intimate relationship. It can add a sense of connectedness to the world or to each other. It can heal a sense of emotion and isolation so many of us feel even though we are socially integrated. It can help build our immunity against media messages that can make us feel as if we don’t deserve pleasure.”

He goes on to say that “when we do not include a discourse of pleasure we perpetuate [people with disabilities’] asexual and victimization status.” Sexual pleasure, for many, is a natural part of the human experience, and no one should be denied it solely based on something that is out of their control, whether it be race, gender, orientation, or disability. This translates to our media: When we consistently deny characters sexual pleasure, we deny them part of the human experience, which we cannot afford to do in an age where media is everywhere.

TFIOS is a step in the right direction, as it explores the lives of these teenagers with all the depth and nuance one could ask for, with both the book and the movie doing its characters justice.

It is quite commonplace, while traversing the Internet, to find an article that dismisses young people and/or the things they enjoy. Often all I have to do is log in to Twitter to find yet another exposé on how narcissistic we are, how risqué our media is, or how embarrassed adults should be if they are enjoying our books.

When The Fault in Our Stars led the box office over the Tom Cruise flick Edge of Tomorrow during its opening weekend, the fact that its primary audience consisted of young women became one of the biggest focal points among media outlets. What I find much more interesting about TFIOS, compared to many other popular films, is the care Green and the film’s team evidently put into creating the book and movie, respectively, ensuring an honest portrayal of teenagers with both cancer and disability. It doesn’t romanticize anything, nor does it vilify anything; it simply tells the story in all its nuanced beauty. The Fault in Our Stars challenges everyone to imagine its characters complexly, to see beyond our own preconceived ideas of who these characters should be and to whom they really are. This is a feat that is impressive no matter the intended demographic, a feat that I’m sure makes everyone involved in the production of the book and film proud.

The title, The Fault in Our Stars, is a play on the Shakespeare quote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” This implies that the problems in our lives aren’t due to what we call fate, but to our own failings. TFIOS argues conversely, asserting that there are inequities in our lives that have nothing to do with our failings, but that doesn’t make anyone’s life less valuable, simply less privileged. I definitely agree with this assertion, for in many cases there are things in this world that are out of our control.

However, the faults in our media are within our power to change. It is up to us, in this age of infinite screens, to ensure that the images we see daily are nuanced ones. The Fault in Our Stars is a step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that it will open doors to stories that follow in its stead.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.