Dr. Rebecca Hains

Reconciling David Bowie’s genius with rape 

David_bowieToday, on the day of David Bowie’s death, people have been discussing an upsetting issue: Early in his career, David Bowie statutorily raped young teen girls—the underage “baby groupies” who were an open secret in the rock scene of the 1970s. This was despite the age of consent being 18 in California. (Their scene was the Sunset Strip.)

It’s difficult to receive this information while mourning Bowie’s death. It’s particularly complex to negotiate for those fans who are aware of the complexities of rape culture and who have made a conscious decision to believe women.

The idea that Bowie is a rapist (albeit a statutory one) places him within a broader behind-the-scenes pattern that is not uncommon enough among male stars. Bill Cosby. Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mike Tyson. R. Kelly. Michael Jackson. John Lennon. The list of famous men who have raped or battered women or children seems endless. Though these cases vary in significant ways, they all reflect the same underlying problems: criminally predatory behavior and entitlement in men’s celebrity culture.

But every time we learn another beloved figure committed horrible acts, it’s distressing. It’s unexpected. It’s a predictable pattern, but it’s not predictable regarding any one celebrity, so it always comes as a shock.

How can we, as fans, process such distressing information, particularly when it arises in social media conversations simultaneous to our mourning a widely loved figure?

I think it helps to remember the following:

1) Talented people do terrible things, too. Sometimes, their fame encourages such behavior, and it often enables it.

2) Being talented doesn’t excuse a person for committing terrible acts. Just because someone is an incredible artist doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye to how they have wronged people.

3) Calling out artists’ abuse of others doesn’t necessarily negate the cultural value of their bodies of work. (Depending on the nature of their oeuvres, though, it can render them hypocrites and make us suspicious of their intentions.)

4) It is a sad commentary on our culture that modern masculinity can be so entitled, so toxic, that we are repeatedly put in the position of both loving the art and hating the man behind said art for what he did to women and/or children. It’s a horrible position for fans to be in–to try to reconcile our admiration of their work with our loathing for their actions.

P.S.: I am a David Bowie fan. This piece evolved throughout the day in my responses to posts about the statutory rape, which filled my Facebook feed (alongside posts mourning his death and celebrating his life, several of which I posted, too).

The conversations I read tended to convey two opposing perspectives: That this information is a deal-breaker that ruins Bowie’s work, or that this information is no big deal, because the girl says she was consenting. I weighed in because I think neither assertion is quite right. Bowie’s work is still wonderful. At the same time, the girl’s consent doesn’t negate the fact that this was statutory rape. As a young teen (depending on which report you read, she was 13, 14 or 15 at the time), legally she could not consent—and as an adult, Bowie knew better. He should not have pursued and seduced a minor.

Ultimately, I agree with Amanda Marcotte, who a couple of hours after I published this piece wrote: “Even if the girl in question says she is consenting, the relationship is inherently exploitative, at best. It is good that attitudes about this have changed and that we take statutory rape more seriously now. […] This all shows that the takeaway from hearing this story […] is that changing the culture *works.* And that is a far more interesting and important conversation to have than  whether or not you personally are a righteous person because you listen to David Bowie records.”

It’s a difficult discussion. My hope is that by engaging one another on these points, we continue to move the culture forward.

Bowie and teenFor further reading:

Primary source material: “I lost my virginity to David Bowie”

On the history of the age of consent in California: “The crazy quilt of our age of consent laws”

Secondary sources / analyses:

Other discussions:


Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. You may also follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Princess Leia is a general now. But why isn’t she in more toy stores?

Children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia.

 By Rebecca Hains for the Washington Post

Princess Leia is a cultural icon. When “Star Wars” debuted in 1977, Leia’s leadership, bravery and heroism were traits rarely found in women on the silver screen. By defying stereotypes, she became an instant role model for girls.

But Leia is a princess no longer. Last week, director J.J. Abrams revealedthat the newest film in the saga, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” drops her “princess” honorific. She’s General Leia now, crystallizing what fans have long known: She’s a strong leader, not the damsel in distress princesses often represent in pop culture.

To many 21st-century viewers, Leia’s evolution from “princess” to “general” marks progress. As I explain in my book “The Princess Problem,” modern princess culture implies that physical beauty is a girl’s greatest asset — not intelligence, strength or courage. This wasn’t always what the title signified, however, including when Leia first appeared.

“In the 1970s, ‘princess’ was just one among many fantasy feminine roles,” explains University of California at Davis sociologist and lecturer Elizabeth Sweet, “and it was far more loosely defined than it is today. Leia’s role as princess didn’t preclude her from being a strong, capable leader. The ‘princess’ role that dominates today is far more narrow.”

Given this context, Leia’s reemergence after nearly 40 years with an earned military title is garnering praise from princess-culture critics.

“Leia’s status as a general shows girls that there is life beyond princess,” says Michele Yulo, president of Princess Free Zone. Women are nowgraduating from Army Ranger School, after all. “Boys need to continue to see girls and women as much more than princesses.”

Margot Magowan, a movie critic and the founder of the Reel Girl blog, agrees. “Princesses don’t threaten the sexist power structure. Not yet a queen, a princess is usually a young person who hasn’t claimed her power,” Magowan says. “I’m much more excited about Leia’s role in the narrative because of the potential the label ‘general’ implies. ‘General’ denotes agency, power and command, and it’s a label we traditionally associate with male characters.”

Many parents share Magowan’s excitement. “Any erasing of princess is a win in my eyes,” says Elisabeth Nash Wrenn, the mother of a 4-year-old girl in Salem, Mass. “Girls don’t need strong princesses. They need non-princesses, in my opinion.”

Even with the title change, though, “Star Wars” licensees aren’t featuring Leia very prominently in their new merchandise. Unfortunately, children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia, especially when such characters stem from brands whose merchandise typically targets boys. In franchises such as “Star Wars” and the films and comic books by Marvel and DC Comics, toy licensees typically exclude important female characters from the toys and T-shirts that play pivotal roles in children’s play and identities. […]

Read more at The Washington Post.

Why boys should play with dolls

No one is surprised about seeing dads with strollers anymore, yet biases with toys persist.

As Black Friday deals approach, I’ve been spending time thinking about my 7-year-old’s Christmas wish list. Thankfully, it’s short and sweet: a Beanie Boo, a Hess truck, Star Wars LEGOs, a LeapPad, a baby doll.

The fact that this is a boy’s list might spark some surprise, since it includes a classic “girl” toy, a baby doll to nurture. But today we’re on the cusp of a new children’s culture in which delineations between so-called girls’ and boys’ toys — between dolls and diesel trucks — won’t exist.

My son spends equal time playing with boys and girls and delights in playing house and video games alike. “Toys are for everybody,” he insists with admirable stubbornness.

But not everyone sees it that way. This summer, I appeared on the radio show NightSide With Dan Rea to discuss Target’s decision to stop labeling toy aisles for boys or girls. People from across the country phoned in, incensed. Many callers claimed that those of us who supported Target’s decision wanted to make “boys and girls the same,” arguing that we were promoting some kind of unisex, androgynous dystopia. […]

Read more at The Boston Globe.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Target will stop labeling toys for boys or girls. Good.

Target will stop labeling toys for boys or for girls. Good.

Yes, your daughter can play with blocks, and your son can play with dolls.

by Rebecca Hains for the Washington Post

Target’s decision to eliminate “boys” and “girls” signs from its toys and bedding departments makes a bold statement: Gender stereotypes and gendered marketing are passé. Many parents have spent years calling for the desegregation of children’s products, and this decision from the second-largest discount retailer in the U.S. signals a real cultural shift.

The announcement has met both high praise and extreme outrage in the past week. For every progressive parent celebrating the demise of the pink and blue aisles, a conservative parent is furious that Target has taken the other side in this culture war. Their outrage seems to stem from a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of “gender neutral” in a marketing context.
For example, a recent statement from Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, echoes many conservatives’ comments on Target’s Facebook page. Graham is calling for consumers to boycott. He called Target to complain about its decision, because, he says, “It’s not gender-neutral people out there” who led to Target’s success. Graham added, “Jesus said, ‘Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female (Matthew 19:4). You can’t get any clearer than that.”

“Gender-neutral marketing” doesn’t signify an attempt to make males and females the same, however, or to ban traditionally gendered toys like Barbie and G.I. Joe, as some allege. Rather, as I have explained on “Fox and Friends” and in the Boston Globe Magazine, it simply means organizing products children already love according to interest or theme — not by boy or girl. It’s actually a throwback to a bygone era that many critics of the practice grew up with: Gender-based marketing only came into vogue in the 1990s, when companies realized they could convince parents of children of both sexes to buy twice as much stuff by introducing gender segmentation to kids’ products.

In fact, toys used to be sold to kids in broad categories and organized by type, not by who would use them, according to Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of California at Davis who has researched how the gendered marketing of children’s products has evolved since 1905. “So this move by Target is neither radical nor unprecedented,” Sweet says.

So, why this change, and why now? […]

Read more at The Washington Post

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

YMCA pool to mom: Baby girls need to wear swim tops. But, why?

Infant girl and boy at the pool

Angela writes that while visiting her local YMCA yesterday on one of the hottest days of the year, staff in the pool area informed her that her one-year-old daughter needed to wear a swim top. “It was fine for the baby boys not to wear a top,” Angela notes incredulously. “So as long as it’s a blue swim suit, then it’s okay?”

In my opinion, such a policy is problematic. First of all, it sexualizes infant girls. At such an early age, the only physiological way to tell a boy from a girl is from their genitalia. Their chests are undeveloped. Why would any reasonable adult think baby girls’ chests need to be covered?

Secondly, such a policy can only be enforced by relying upon stereotypical expectations regarding a child’s attire. As the campaign Let Clothes Be Clothes continuously reminds us, there is no such thing as “boys’ clothes” or “girls’ clothes”—just clothing with various colors and design elements, some of which fit our stereotypical expectations of what boys like and what girls like. But children (and their parents; and everyone, really) should feel comfortable dressing in whatever they like, without facing cultural pressures to conform to arbitrary gender stereotypes.

In other words, with children so young, unless the YMCA staff plan to implement diaper checks–which, clearly, they would not–they shouldn’t be policing girls’ swim attire. Doing so constitutes discrimination against those wearing stereotypically feminine swim attire, while allowing those of either sex who are wearing blue or gender-neutral attire to swim free of harassment from staff.

As Angela concludes regarding the photo she attached in her message to me: “My baby girl on the left—unacceptable swim attire. Baby boy on the right—acceptable. Really???”

Angela plans to address this further with leadership at her local YMCA, and her local moms’ group is even considering planning a “topless toddlers” day at the pool to press their point.

Readers: Any advice or suggestions? Have you successfully countered a sexist policy like this?

NYU Bookstore pulls body-shaming “I hate my thighs” onesie hours after complaints begin

"I hate my thighs" onesie

Yesterday, NYU employee Jason Y. Evans snapped this photo of an “I hate my thighs” onesie for infant girls in the NYU bookstore.

He alerted several student and alumni groups, and they complained to the bookstore. In fewer than eight hours, the bookstore had removed the onesie from its shelves.

To many, however, it’s shocking a university bookstore had stocked the item in the first place. It’s the same onesie that made international headlines two weeks ago after being roundly condemned by critics for body-shaming baby girls. The t-shirt’s producer responded to that original controversy in a tone-deaf (or perhaps intentionally baiting) way, claiming it was “ironic,” adding further fuel to the fire.

Evan’s photograph has prompted another round of attention for the onesie in part because of the contrast between the girls’ body-shaming onesie and the boys’ “I’m super” onesie. Their presentation together underscores the differences in girls’ and boys’ socialization regarding self-esteem and body satisfaction in a truly heartbreaking way. (As one commenter on my Facebook page remarked, it “pretty much sums up the difference between clothes design for boys and for girls.”)

Kudos to the NYU community for letting the NYU bookstore know that this kind of product is unacceptable. It’s a good reminder that collective outcry can make a difference, however small. With any luck, other retailers will pay attention, pull this item from their shelves, and send it back to the manufacturer for a refund, hitting them where it hurts.

Excerpts from the original Facebook post are below.

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On the NYU Bookstores Facebook page, a bookstore spokesperson confirmed the product had been pulled, noting it had been their “oversight” in stocking it in the first place:

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 10.02.30 AMAs one commenter on my page noted, however, it’s mind-boggling that products like these go through so many levels of approval and are approved at every step of the way, from concept development to presentation at retail:

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Consumers need to continue the backlash and let corporations of all kinds know that they will not earn our patronage by body-shaming girls.
Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.


In Disney’s ‘Cinderella,’ courage and kindness are a victim’s strengths, but a film’s weakness

“Have courage, and be kind.” This sentiment recurs throughout Disney’s new live-action Cinderella. From the moment Ella’s dying mother offers her this advice, it becomes the driving force in Ella’s life and the through-line in her characterization by actress Lily James.

cinderella-final-poster-405x600Imbuing Cinderella with courage and kindness has a purpose: Director Kenneth Branagh uses it to give 2015’s Cinderella more agency than her cartoon predecessor from 1950. After all, in the broader media culture, bold, empowered young women are on trend (think Frozen’s Anna and Elsa, Brave’s Merida, and Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen). Passive victims like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty are passé, out of step with modern values.

In Branagh’s retelling of Disney’s animated classic, then, Ella makes a courageous choice to stay in her father’s home with her stepfamily. She chooses to respond to their cruelty with unearned kindness, even when they eject her from her room, stop feeding her properly, force her to tend an estate once managed by many servants, and taunt her, calling her Cinderella instead of Ella. Because it is her choice, the film positions Cinderella is not merely a passive victim, but a young woman with agency.

Young women’s agency is a hot topic. Parents, critics, and members of the pro-girl-empowerment community want girls to grow up to feel they are in charge of their own lives. As presented in Cinderella, however, Ella’s choice to submit graciously to abuse is a problematic message that weakens the film. If Ella’s courage and kindness allow others to abuse and deprive her, what good is it?

Here’s the underlying problem: All choices happen in a context. In the cultural context of Ella’s (vague and undefined) historical era and geographic locale, what range of choices would a young woman in her position really have? Could she have chosen to leave her family home if she had wished to? Did she have any extended family to go to? With her skills and mannered upbringing, could she have pursued employment as a lady’s maid, or would that not have been appropriate for a young woman of her station?

None of these questions are addressed in the film, which is unfortunate. It would have been easy enough to address them in the market scene, where a former servant of her father’s household asks Ella why she stays with her stepfamily. Her answer makes little sense: She states that she promised her parents to always cherish the family home, and so she stays. It’s a strange answer, for surely her devoted parents would never have wanted her to value a mere building more than her own health and well-being. From a storytelling perspective, it’s truly an opportunity lost: A quick conversation on the constraints Ella faced as a young woman alone in the world would have strengthened the film, giving it more power. As Joanna Weiss points out in the Boston Globe, “An easy answer, had Disney chosen to give it, is history. Unmarried women weren’t always free to move out on their own. Say that out loud and spark millions of deep conversations in minivans on the ride home.”

The long and short of it is this: While Branagh presented Disney’s newest Cinderella as less of a victim because she made a courageous choice, her choice was merely one of which way she should endure her abuse. What were her options, really: to endure her situation with grace, or anger, or despondency? Agency of this kind is incredibly limited, and Branagh’s inattention to the cultural context of Cinderella’s world is a weakness of the film. Accepting one’s victimization does not make one any less of a victim, even if you do so with such grace and dignity that you are a bride fit for a prince. Ultimately, Cinderella still requires the interference of a prince to change her fate from that of a victim.

In interviews, however, Branagh and his cast have asserted that Cinderella’s relationship with the Prince was irrelevant. As Richard Madden, the actor who played the Prince in the new film, stated in an interview: “This young woman in distress doesn’t need a man to save her. That’s totally irrelevant—she’d be fine without the prince, she’d get on with it.”

This sentiment sounds wonderful, but the film offers no indication that Cinderella would have “gotten on” with any other life kind of life. As long as her stepfamily was around, she seemed destined to remain a quietly courageous victim engaged in no better than slave labor. How would the continuation of that status quo have been “fine”?

Viewers may be also frustrated by the abruptness of the Fairy Godmother’s bumbling but good-natured and entertaining intervention. (Aside: Why did this film and Maleficent reimagine fairies who were portrayed as competent, powerful, gray-haired older women in the original animated films as younger and ditzy?) She only shows up when Cinderella wishes to attend the ball, but Cinderella needed so much more, so much earlier. Is this further evidence that in her socio-historic context, Cinderella’s choices would have been so limited that her only real “choice” was to stay with her abusive stepfamily or find a man? It seems all the magic in the world could not afford her a way to save herself. The best it could do was to help Cinderella deliver herself into the arms of the most eligible, handsomest, near-stranger bachelor around.

On the other hand, though, viewers may be pleased with subtle but important changes to the Prince’s storyline. Some good points:

1. The Prince seems to be drawn to Cinderella’s personality, her passion for courage and kindness, more than her beauty. It’s not a love-at-first-sight tale, but rather, one of love at first meeting, first conversation. Their first encounter is in the forest, when neither knows anything about the other. Cinderella loves animals (she is a Disney Princess, after all), so she chastises her new acquaintance for hunting a stag. The Prince, in turn, is taken by Cinderella’s words and spirit. The idea that he is drawn foremost to her personality is a step in the right direction for Disney, which tends to over-emphasize the perceived value of its heroines’ appearances.

2. The Prince has a close relationship with his dying father, who calls him Kit (which is very sweet), and who on his deathbed gives him his blessing to marry for love rather than political advantage. Father-son relationships are rarely depicted in Disney films, and this backstory is refreshing.

3. The Prince knows that the “mystery princess” from the ball was the girl he had become smitten with in the forrest. He recognizes her, and that—not her physical appearance—is why he seeks her out to dance.

4. After Cinderella leaves the ball without revealing her identity to the Prince, he sends an announcement to every village, declaring that he invites the “mystery princess” to join him at the castle so that he may propose to her, if she is willing. But she does not join him at the castle. He wonders whether she was somehow prevented from accepting his invitation, so in an effort to ensure she has a choice in the matter, he launches a search for the woman who fits her glass slipper. In an interesting twist, the Prince does not actually need the glass slipper to identify Cinderella, as he has seen her in both commoner and princessly form. Rather, the slipper serves as an excuse for his staff to approach every maiden in every corner of the kingdom to ferret out the young woman he is seeking, wherever she may be, and give her the option to accept or decline his offer of marriage, without the interference he worries may be at play.

Like other parts of Branagh’s Cinderella, then, the Prince’s search positions Cinderella as having a choice, as having agency in the matter. Unlike the stag the Prince was hunting earlier in the movie—which I read as a parallel to the beautiful maiden the Prince was essentially hunting in Disney’s 1950 Cinderella—today’s Cinderella is not a prize to be won. She is treated by the Prince as a person in her own right, and he appears to take her wishes are into consideration, aware of the possibility she might decline to be with him.

Realistically, of course, if we consider the significant matter of context, it’s hard to imagine her choosing the alternative. Why would she continue to be abused, with no exit strategy possible, when she can leave her abusers and become a princess?

Nevertheless, the idea that the Prince recognizes Cinderella’s agency and hopes she will choose him, rather than assuming that she is there for the taking, is perhaps the most important revision to the film. The theme of courage and kindness fall flat, but the fact that the Prince does not feel entitled to have her unless she consents is a meaningful improvement to the story.

After all, girls are not prizes to be won by male suitors. They’re people.

For further reading: 


Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.