Hillary Clinton, Melissa Harris-Perry, and the Opposite of Imposter Syndrome

Originally published on The Huffington Post on 3/27/2016.

To fit into male-dominated spaces, women are told to fix a lot of things: stop using “sorry” and “just” in emails, avoid vocal fry and upspeak, and “watch your tone” at all times.

But more than anything else, women are told that it’s a lack of confidence that’s really holding us back. If only we could get over imposter syndrome, and internalize our successes instead of feeling like serially lucky frauds, we’d be unstoppable.

Too bad it doesn’t work like that. There is a very real external bias against women’s competence, and nobody gets around it by being more confident. In fact, as we see through the experiences of Hillary Clinton and Melissa Harris-Perry, being more confident can result in harsh pushback when you’re pursuing leadership positions within male-dominated environments. Because how dare you.

While we’re so busy focusing on what women should and should not do, there’s a big problem going undiagnosed: entitlement syndrome. The opposite of imposter syndrome, entitlement syndrome is the problem of overconfident mediocre white men. After I break down competence bias, I’ll get into what entitlement syndrome looks like, and what some concrete solutions might be.

What competence bias looks like

Women are assumed to be less competent, less trustworthy, and are held to a higher standard overall than men. There’s a much greater chance that their work will be ignored, discounted, trivialized, devalued, or otherwise not taken seriously. The more success a woman experiences, the stronger these external forces become. They’re also magnified by intersecting biases, like racism and homophobia.

It’s easy to see how imposter syndrome is a rational response to competence bias. Why would you think you’re competent, if nobody else does?

Competence bias starts early. Girls learn that they’ll be held to higher standards physically, intellectually, and behaviorally than boys. While boys are raised to exaggerate their skills, take risks, fall down and pick themselves back up, girls are taught to think things through and second-guess, avoid risk and failure, and not raise their hand unless they’re sure they have the right answer. Lastly, girls absorb from the media that their real value lies in their appearance, at the same time that boys absorb the message that girls are not to be trusted.

It’s not simple to undo such deeply held, unconscious biases. Telling women to counteract the entirety of competence bias by being more confident is like telling one of Cinderella’s stepsisters to squeeze her foot harder into the glass slipper. It’s never going to work. The structure itself has to shift, which is going to take work by both women and men (I’ll get into this more later).

However, self-confidence in the face of oppression is extremely disruptive to power structures. Audre Lorde called self-love “an act of political warfare“, and Maya Angelou wrote about its power to upset and offend oppressors. When a woman is confident instead of self-doubting, it means she’s no longer playing by the rules. It triggers intense pushback, as we’ll see in the stories of Hillary Clinton and Melissa Harris-Perry.

Hillary Clinton’s experience

Hillary Clinton’s list of accomplishments puts her in the top echelons of high achieving women. Not only was she the first female partner at a major law firm, but she went on to serve as First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, US Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. She ran for president in 2008, and now, eight years later, she’s doing it again.

According to Nate Silver’s analysis, Hillary Clinton has earned consistently high approval ratings in each of her government positions. In 2013, as Secretary of State, her 69% approval rating made her the most popular politician in the country. But Silver also found that the moment Clinton hits the campaign trail for any kind of political office, her approval rating crashes. Why? Writer Sady Doyle sums it up like this:

“Campaigning is not succeeding. It’s asking for success, and for power. To campaign is to publicly claim that you are better than the others (usually white men) who want the same job, and that a whole lot of people should work to place you in a more powerful position. In other words, campaigning is a transgressive act for women… Women who put themselves forward in the same assertive, confident style as men are routinely found pushy, “bitchy,” or unlikable, and professionally penalized for that, too.”

This is a paradox. The public has tremendous respect for Hillary Clinton as long as she has her head down and is working hard. But the moment she asks credit, acknowledgment, and a promotion, that admiration turns to vitriol. By confidently asking for what she wants, and stating why she deserves it, Clinton brings her competence into question.

Sound familiar? A lot of women have experienced sexism in their workplace performance reviews that closely parallels Clinton’s experience. After all, what is a political campaign but a huge, public performance review? Reviews are a minefield for high-achieving women. Several studies have come out recently confirming that women displaying confident, assertive behavior at work are often labeled “abrasive”, “bossy”, “strident”, “emotional” and “irrational” in their performance reviews. Fun fact: the word “abrasive” literally never appears in men’s performance reviews. What does it mean to be called “abrasive”? Without a doubt, it means “stay in your lane.” All of these forms of pushback work together to undercut a woman’s perceived competence in the workplace.

Hillary Clinton has been not-so-subtly told to stay in her lane in all kinds of different ways that undercut her competence. She was told she has a “loud, annoying, nagging wife” voice, called out for appearing without makeup, and criticized for her pantsuits. She was slammed for not showing authentic emotion, but then when her voice broke during a speech, it was widely reported as “weeping” and her ability to hold it together enough to lead was called into question. Media Matters has compiled a full list of sexist media reports from 2007-2008, organized by category (there are fourteen). A word of warning: it’s overwhelming. Even if you don’t like Hillary Clinton at all, please look at this list. (And if you need something to laugh about afterwards to bring you back up – I did – here’s the Clinton-Palin SNL skit.)

Sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton’s competence in the 2015-2016 primary season have been more subtle, but they’re still there. This time around, we’re seeing a huge focus on “trust”, which is important to recognize as a very loaded word from a gender perspective. Let me clarify that it is a valid criticism to say “I don’t trust Clinton because she has a record of [insert specific political action].” It’s not a valid criticism to imply that she just “seems” untrustworthy, or lacks authenticity and “realness” as a person. This kind of criticism essentially calls her an imposter.

Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders, is widely praised for being trustworthy and authentic. When arguments for Bernie Sanders being trustworthy are based on his congressional record, writings, and speeches, that’s not sexist. That’s just a regular opinion, and an important part of the political process. But when we see a recurring emphasis on Bernie’s sense of authenticity based the fact that he doesn’t care about how he looks, prefers not to brush his hair, and makes faces during debates, that is sexist. People say it’s just “Bernie being Bernie” and that he’s “bucking the traditional image of a political candidate” but it’s important to take a closer look. We find a strikingly similar example in Republican candidate Donald Trump – famous for his comb-over and spray tan – who is known for “showing real emotion” and being “not afraid to make himself look really ugly.”

Both Sanders and Trump are praised for an image that no female candidate is currently allowed to cultivate. Show me a female candidate who can throw on an ill-fitting suit, not brush her hair, and scowl and wag her finger at her opponent during a debate. The media would have a field day, not a love-fest.

The attacks on Clinton’s competence go beyond appearance. This widely-circulated meme is one example:


While the subject matter is often silly, ranging from Harry Potter to Star Wars, Bernie’s responses are crafted to demonstrate a thorough understanding of each issue. He just “gets it.” Hillary’s responses are instead designed to demonstrate enthusiastic cluelessness from a poser (imposter) spouting a totally superficial answer she thinks the crowd will like. It’s pretty close to framing her as a bimbo.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have the privilege of existing in a wide lane when it comes to appearance and behavior. Not only are they assumed to be competent, and automatically praised instead of punished for the act of asking for power – but they’re encouraged to be their passionately scowling, unfashionable selves, and people love them for it.

Hillary Clinton’s lane is narrow. Not only is she a woman asking for power (an automatic transgression), but she is required to prove her competence over and over. She wins no authenticity or trustworthiness points for deviating from perfection in appearance or behavior. Sure, she can “be herself” – but the cost is that her actions will be effectively run through a de-credibility translator. Tears become hysteria. Laughing is called cackling. Frowning is a sign of mood swings. If she tries to avoid showing any emotion to avoid this kind of judgment altogether, she’s called a robot. It’s a no-win situation.

Let’s move on to MHP’s story.

Melissa Harris-Perry’s experience

Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the much-loved Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, has recently ended a struggle for editorial control with the network by deciding to leave her show. In a publicly-published email to her staff, she said:

“MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. While MSNBC may believe that I am worthless, I know better. I know who I am. I know why MHP Show is unique and valuable. I will not sell short myself or this show. I am not hungry for empty airtime. I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work. When we can do that, I will return–not a moment earlier.”

Melissa Harris-Perry has a PhD in political science and taught American voting and elections at some of the country’s top universities including Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Wake Forest. An expert in her field, she consistently brought diverse voices to her show to talk about elections, local and national government, and social movements. The MHP Show was vastly more diverse than any other Sunday cable news show. Her guests were 45 percent white, compared to a 75-88 percent range from all the other major political weekend shows. Hers was also the only show that came anywhere near a 50-50 gender balance.


After years of fighting for editorial control, MHP reached her limit when MSNBC’s white male leadership told her she could not discuss Beyonce’s Formation video, even though it is politically relevant and the entire country was talking about it. They wanted her to stick to election politics instead. What happened was MHP spoke about Formation anyway, as footage of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie rallies in New Hampshire appeared in a box on the screen. MSNBC was not pleased.

If you watch MHP’s commentary on Formation, the subtext is loud and clear. She says:

“Beyonce is making an artistic statement that is boldly, unapologetically, black. She’s giving us black bodies and a black politics that will not be silenced or ashamed, but instead commands space for the one thing the video tells us they are most definitely here to do – as Beyonce says in the song’s refrain -‘I slay’.”

Melissa Harris-Perry is telling MSNBC that she too is bold, unapologetic, and came to slay. She will accept nothing less than full respect for her leadership and editorial vision – and this vision is fully linked to her identity as a black woman. She then informed MSNBC that she’s leaving.

The network responded to her publicly-shared email by saying “She’s a brilliant, intelligent but challenging and unpredictable personality” and “It’s highly unlikely she will continue” at MSNBC. Her email “is destructive to our relationship.”

MSNBC trying to slam MHP by using “challenging” and “unpredictable” as coded language both for “a confident woman who will not stay in her lane” and “a black person who doesn’t care what white people think.” Not only is MHP supposed to experience self-doubt as a woman, but MSNBC is shocked that she expresses such confidence as a minority in an overwhelmingly white-dominated industry, operating within a system of white supremacy. They view her confidence as an act of extreme audacity. Once again, we’re seeing the kind of words that could easily appear in any successful woman’s performance review.

MSNBC’s statement also misleadingly makes it sound like there’s still a relationship that MHP is recklessly damaging. Newsflash: you can’t fire someone who already quit. The email can’t possibly be “destructive to the relationship” because MHP already decided that there is no more relationship.

The network is treating MHP like she should have imposter syndrome, but she doesn’t. She is completely aware of her contribution and self worth, and she made the decision to leave on her own terms. Unsurprisingly, media reporting echoed MSNBC’s incredulity, saying that the network “severed ties with her” or “fired her” or even that she “went on strike.” It’s so hard for people to grasp that MHP simply took the power in this situation, and left.

The best part of this story is that not only did MHP choose freedom over silence by leaving MSNBC, but she also did it by refusing to sign a non-disparagement clause on her way out. The network assumed she would exchange her silence for cash in their exit negotiations, but she didn’t. And then she simply carried on speaking truth:

MSNBC tried to publicly punish MHP for her confidence, but she’s refusing to be silently “disappeared” like former hosts. The network and the media can still try to spin her story however they want, but she won’t be enduring it silently, and that will make things a lot harder for them. Not only do they have to field questions about her departure, but also the wider issue of their participation in the whitewashing of cable news.

MHP and HRC are fighting different battles, but both of their stories reveal the pushback that happens when persistent confidence flies in the face of competence bias.

Since it just wouldn’t be fair to talk about half the population being taught to self-doubt, without talking about the other half being taught to self-aggrandize, let’s move on to entitlement syndrome.

Entitlement syndrome

Entitlement syndrome is formally known as the Dunning-Kruger effect or illusory superiority. It disproportionately affects white men (whiteness and maleness being powerful intersecting privileges), and usually remains invisible and undiagnosed. Here’s a quick definition:

Entitlement syndrome is when a person (usually a white man) overestimates his own skills, relative to others. He believes he deserves not only respect for his accomplishments (no matter how mediocre) but also success. He doesn’t have to go above and beyond to qualify for excellence, and if he doesn’t get the success he deserves, it’s not his fault. He can use vocal fry, upspeak, and “sorry” and “just” because he expects to be judged solely on the content of his speech. He also believes he deserves the benefit of the doubt at all times, a partner who is much more attractive than him, and copious amounts of public space.

Both entitlement syndrome and imposter syndrome have their root in the unconscious competence bias that operates at every level. You can see it clearly when you look at how men and women view success and failure.

When women succeed, they tend to attribute their success to external factors (imposter syndrome). But when men succeed, they tend to attribute their successes to inner qualities like dedication and talent (entitlement syndrome). When men and women fail, the attributions get flipped. Women tend to blame their failures on internal shortcomings or a lack of effort (imposter syndrome), while men tend to blame circumstances outside their control (entitlement syndrome). So in a general sense, we have men internalizing mostly successes and women internalizing mostly failures, an internal thought process which is then strongly reinforced by outside forces.

Entitlement syndrome is like being coated in confidence (and competence!) teflon. You expect to succeed, and this is reinforced by external circumstances: those around you also expect you to succeed. Even if you’re less qualified than other candidates, you believe in yourself. Your competence is rarely questioned by others, so why would you question it? When the competence of other candidates – women, people of color – is rigorously vetted, you also don’t question it. Entitlement syndrome is why we so often see white male mediocrity promoted over more qualified candidates who are not white men.

Entitlement syndrome never makes the self-help circuit. Unlike imposter syndrome, nobody’s making any money off pathologizing a destructive thought pattern that disproportionately affects privileged white men – because for them, it’s not a problem. It’s great. The entitlement syndrome thought pattern is allowed to exist invisibly as the status quo to which other groups must conform in order to be successful. If a group is having trouble, the message is that they need to fix themselves. The system is fine, they just need to work harder to fit into it.

Except the system is not fine. It’s broken. Now what?

Entitlement syndrome is a characteristic of a group that expects to fit easily into an environment that was designed especially for them. Imposter syndrome, on the other hand, is the cognitive dissonance that happens when a group does everything “right” to fit in and succeed, and yet can’t escape a situation in which their competence is regularly under fire. The examples of Melissa Harris-Perry and Hillary Clinton show that biased attacks on competence only increase in intensity the more competence and confidence a woman demonstrates.

The problem is systemic and environmental, so the solution also must also be systemic and environmental. As scholar Karen Ashcraft states, “social change is about fixing environments, not people.” Here are a few examples of things we can do:

  1. If your company is holding assertiveness trainings for women, ask what trainings will be held for men. If only the women in a workplace are deemed in need of special training, it sends a message that the men’s skill set is the standard. The reality is that everyone can benefit from dexterity in communication.
  2. Through unconscious bias training, cultivate “privilege traitors” who do the work of debunking their own privilege and pointing out unconscious bias when they see it.
  3. Keep an eye out for backlash that happens when a woman asserts confidence in the workplace. If you are involved in a performance review process and a word like “abrasive” comes up, push back. Explain why that word is problematic, and stick to specific, performance-related examples.
  4. If you’re in a meeting and you witness a woman being interrupted by a man, who then essentially repeats what the woman just said, expecting (and somehow getting) credit for it, cut in as soon as they take a breath. Redirect attention back to the woman by saying something like “Oh, that’s like Lila was just saying about ____. Lila, tell us more about how ____ would work.”

To really get at the root of competence bias, we’re going to have to arrive at an environment where no one group is seen as the yardstick for competence. Per Ashcraft, we need to create environments where difference can emerge and flourish. This means dropping any assumptions of what difference will look like. Instead of saying, “we need more women in politics because they’re great at building consensus” or “we need more women of color hosting cable news shows because they’re better at bringing in more diverse guests” we should be saying “we need more diverse representation in politics and cable news because it reflects the plurality we live in.” We can’t rely on tired stereotypes to assume what impact this will have. We can only encourage humility, curiosity, and openness around how that difference will emerge and what it will look like.

4 Things the “Ferguson Effect” Gets Wrong (and 1 big thing it gets right)

4 Things the “Ferguson Effect” Gets Wrong (and 1 big thing it gets right)

Over the past week, both the Director of the FBI and the acting head of the DEA have publicly stated that they think there might be some validity to the “Ferguson Effect.”

The “Ferguson Effect” is an attempt to explain why there has been a spike in homicides in some major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. It states that police officers are now so afraid of ending up on YouTube, that they are reluctant to do their jobs. Or as Trevor Noah puts it, police officers now live in fear of “someone whipping out their phone and brutally filming them.”

Who started it? Sam Dotson, the police chief of St. Louis, Missouri. Last year, after the protests in Ferguson, he said that police were moving away from frontline work and the “criminal element is feeling empowered.” The phrase “Ferguson Effect” has been popping up here and there for months, gaining momentum, but now that it’s been endorsed by FBI and DEA leadership, it’s getting a lot more press.

Unsurprisingly, the White House calls bullshit on this theory, pointing out that it’s based on blatant data cherry-picking.

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets wrong

1. There are obvious correlation vs. causation issues.

If you take a look at Ferguson, MO, the epicenter of the “Ferguson Effect”, you can see that the homicide rate started to rise months before Michael Brown’s death.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 8.29.51 PM

According to The Sentencing Project, crime data is a “cherry-picker’s delight.” Why? Because our leading comprehensive data sources are slow. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey comes out twice a year, but it doesn’t include city-level crime data. If you want city-level crime data, you have to wait for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which are only published annually. So, on a month-to-month basis, everybody’s data is anecdotal. In other words: “If you want to tell a story of crime increases, you can. If not, just pick from a different tree.”

2. Even if we had the data, nobody really knows what affects the crime rate.

The big-picture story is that violent crime has been on a steady decrease for about 20 years now (around the world) and nobody has been able to pinpoint why. The end of the crack cocaine epidemic? Less lead paint? More access to abortion? Hot spot policing? We just don’t know. When Time published an article last year titled “Violent Crime Drops to Lowest Level Since 1978” it stated one possible reason for the decrease is “an increased use of security cameras and cell phone videos capturing incidents.” LOLZ. 

3. It’s offensive to police officers who are doing their jobs.

The “Ferguson Effect” states that the murder rate is rising – people are losing their lives – specifically because police officers are not doing their jobs. This falsely plants the idea that the responsibility for crime prevention lies entirely on police shoulders, and they’re dropping the ball. 

The rhetoric around police hesitation also insinuates that it’s easy to inadvertently commit acts of police violence. It’s eerily similar to messaging around rape that makes it sound like it’s just really easy to “make a mistake.” But the videos that have gone viral do not reveal gray areas. In other words, “Unless you are choking an unarmed man to death who is not resisting, shooting an unarmed man in the back as he is running away or body slamming a calm teenage girl to the floor in front of her classmates, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

4. It’s fear-mongering.

To accept the Ferguson Effect you have to assume there is a “criminal element” out there and the only thing holding them back from total murderous chaos is aggressive policing (clear racist undertones here).

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets right

The “Ferguson Effect” is old-school, emotional, conservative messaging. It combines fear and the “strong father” framework (aka people are naturally evil and need disciplining) with something that appeals to “common sense.” Total power combo.

As Melissa Harris-Perry’s panel explained earlier this month, the “Ferguson Effect” is the kind of conservative myth-creation that happens whenever social movements start making progress. And this one’s a doozy in terms of emotional power, since conversations around crime evoke both corporal fear (someone will hurt me personally) and political fear (the status quo, benefiting those in power, is threatened).

The Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, Marc Mauer, states that the “Ferguson Effect” harkens “back the era of the 1980s when police had crime policy developed by soundbites and anecdotes. We had the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘three strikes, you’re out’” and focus was constantly drawn away from systemic issues, to individual sensationalized crimes.

Even though it’s 2015 and there’s more data available than ever, the conservative emotional messaging game is still on point to cloud the discussion. The “Ferguson Effect” is just the latest in a long history of catchy, loaded phrases like Death Panels, Anchor Babies, Tax Relief, and Welfare Queens.

It’s frustrating that progressives are always two steps behind, weakly shouting “but the data! the data!” Has anyone seen a progressive attempt to reframe the “Ferguson Effect” or change the story around it, as opposed to just saying “no, this isn’t true and here are the facts that explain why”? It’s all very defensive. There’s some great research out there about how to reframe how we talk about the criminal justice system, but so far I haven’t really seen it out in the wild.

If you want to get deeper into how conservative and progressive political messaging strategies work, check out The Political Brain by Drew Westen, and Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. It’s fascinating and great context for following the 2016 presidential campaigns.  

Queen: Do Not Miss This Movie

Queen: Do Not Miss This Movie

Has Netflix suggested Queen to you yet? I watched it, freaked out with joy, and immediately texted my sister, who was all like “yeah, I saw that! It is SO GOOD.”

What a terrible sister, for not telling me about it immediately.

(Just kidding, I love you sister!)


This movie is about a Delhi woman, Rani, who gets dumped by her fiance Vijay two days before her wedding, loses her shit for a minute, and then decides to go on her honeymoon (to Paris and Amsterdam) alone.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.42.30 PM
Or I could just lay in this bed until I die. 

Rani’s a mess, but just can’t stand the thought of missing out on her dream trip (even though her family thinks she’s nuts). At first, when she arrives in Paris, she’s depressed and lonely. But what do you know – it all works out!

This movie strikes just the right balance of serious and silly, and I never wanted it to end.

WARNING: Do Not Watch The Trailer

I’m not even linking to the trailer, because it’s just bad. It’s basically just a mashup of all the scenes where Rani is either crying hysterically or drunk. Why?!? I don’t know. Just trust me on this. Watch the first 5 minutes of the movie instead.

5 Reasons This Movie is Great:

1. It will make you want to travel alone

For a lot of people, the idea of traveling alone sounds scary. Won’t you be lonely? Won’t it be boring without anyone to share your experiences with? It’s easy to fall into a trap of imagining solitary meals, solitary tours, solitary everything.

Ok. Deep breath. 

But in reality, all that loneliness is a pretty unlikely scenario unless you want it to be. Like Rani, you’ll probably meet some cool people, and a few crazy things will inevitably happen.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.34.22 PM
Rani and her new friend, Vijayalakshmi, about to party it up

2. It passes the Bechdel Test, with burping

If you’ve never heard of it, the Bechdel Test was designed to challenge women’s under-representation in films. Here are the three criteria a movie must meet to pass it:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

It’s sadly pretty unusual for a movie to pass the test. But this one does.

As you would expect, there’s a lot of “I’m so sad because this guy dumped me” stuff, but the movie doesn’t get stuck there. For example, there’s a great scene where Rani and her new Paris friend, Vijayalakshmi, are in a cab, talking about burping. And then they practice.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.32.08 PM
Burping practice.

Rani makes friends with both men and women in this movie, defying the movie tropes of “ladies get other ladies through a breakup” or “cool girl hangs out with all the guys.” The mix feels really authentic, and beautiful.

3. All the scenes with the guys from the hostel

When Rani arrives in Amsterdam, she goes to a hostel that Vijayalakshmi booked for her. But when she realizes that a hostel means sharing a room with other people – and in this case, three GUYS, she freaks out. But there are no other options.

At first, Rani is hesitant.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.12.43 PM
“If I don’t make eye contact, they won’t know I’m putting on my bra under this blanket.”

But then she warms up to the guys and they become a weird little family: Rani, Taka from Japan, Tim from France and Oleksander from Russia.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.10.43 PM

They all brush their teeth together in a group.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.19.54 PM

They help each other find nice souvenirs to bring home to their families.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.08.04 PM

They go to the red light district and make friends with pole dancers.

And like a hundred other things. It’s all so, so great.

4. Rani kisses someone! And then it goes nowhere.

Rani insults this Italian chef in Amsterdam by calling his food bland, and he challenges her to cook her food at his stand at a weekend fair and see how she does. Annnnd she is a smashing success. Rani studied culinary arts in college, so she’s a pro – this scene is about her getting back to her passion.

And then she kisses Italian Chef.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 6.55.34 PM
Rani warming up, pre-kiss.

And that’s it! It’s fun, it’s exciting… and she goes right back to hang out with her friends.

5. The fiance comes running back as soon as he gets an inkling of Rani’s new happiness but NOPE. NOPE.

Does moving on actually have a smell that only exes can recognize? Yes, it does. Ciara says it best:

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.50.02 PM
Like clockwork.

So of course, sad-sack Vijay shows up in Amsterdam at the height of Rani’s fun times. Sigh.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 6.59.04 PM
She ignored your 100 phone calls, Vijay. But you showed up anyway.

She *almost* abandons her friends to listen to his endless pleas for reconciliation. But then she comes to her senses, realizes Vijay’s full of shit, and runs off to join the guys for one last rock concert.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.05.06 PM

I love that the way Rani moved on in the movie wasn’t by hooking up with another guy. She wasn’t like “oh sorry, Vijay, but there’s this Italian chef now.” In Rani’s case, the “someone else” she starts loving is her own self. SORRY VIJAY!!!! Go home.

More Reasons to Watch This Movie

There are a couple of deep moments that will take you off guard. And a really great lizard scene. : )

Last thing: Curious about how the film was received in its home country? Here’s a great blog post describing one person’s experience watching it in a theater in Mumbai.

I would love to know what you thought! Post a comment, or drop me a line!

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike


Now that policing strategies are squarely in the public eye, criminal justice system reform advocates are encouraging the public to take a step further and see the problems with policing as part of a larger, broken system. This is an area where reframing is going to be key.

What does a bike have to do with it? Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last month that lays out a new metaphor for thinking about the system:

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. It is as if we have been riding on an old bike with balloon tires and one speed even though we have far more sophisticated vehicles at our disposal. Imagine a public safety vehicle as a 21-speed bike, with enough flexibility to traverse any terrain.”


Ogletree and Harris didn’t pick the idea of a bike out of thin air as a creative way to illustrate their point. On the contrary, they were involved in the strategic construction of this metaphor for three years. Formally known as the “Justice Gears” metaphor, it is the product of intensive research by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with the Hamilton Institute, to determine where the gaps in understanding fall between experts’ understanding of the criminal justice system and the general public’s understanding.

Here’s the Justice Gears metaphor in its entirety:

“Right now our justice system is stuck using only one gear – the prison gear. Think about how a bicycle needs to use different gears for different situations to work effectively and efficiently. The criminal justice system is trying to deal with a wide variety of situations using only the prison gear. We need to have other justice gears for people who come into the system, like mental health or juvenile justice services. We need to change the criminal justice system to make sure it has different gears for different purposes and that it can use the right gear in the right situation. If we do use more justice gears, we can improve outcomes and all get where we need to go.”

The point of this new metaphor is to put a concrete go-to picture in people’s heads when they think about the criminal justice system. Currently, most Americans’ automatic thinking around the subject involves a combination of the following:

  • We jump to public safety, thinking about it mostly in terms of front-line responders: police, firefighters, security personnel. We readily acknowledge that some of these individuals are corrupt or lazy.
  • We think crime is caused by individuals who weigh costs/benefits (rational actors), or by “rotten egg” personalities. To a lesser degree, we think of crime as a result of ecological determinants.
  • We trust that the system is “generally” functioning as it should. We don’t usually think critically about whether the system is working to advance society’s goals, or whether it serves the broad public interest.

The Framework Institute’s report gets into much greater nuance, but a central point is that the general population recognizes that there are problems in the system, but tends to attribute them to isolated individuals. Experts, on the other hand, attribute the problems to structural issues within the system.

It is important to note that African-American and Latino groups in the research study, while still demonstrating a predominant focus on the individual, came closest to the expert view on systemic issues around racial inequities within the system, a finding which comes as no surprise.

Here’s why it’s problematic to have a mental model like our current one, that doesn’t take into account systemic issues: because the model in your head naturally determines the solutions you see. If you think rational actors are choosing to commit crimes, the solution you might see is harsher punishments. If you think bad cops are responsible for police brutality, the solution you might see is stricter policies to establish surveillance around and root out those individuals. Same goes for corrupt prosecutors, crooked wardens, etc. If your mental model is focused on individual “agents”, the solutions you see will be tailored towards those agents.

If you instead see the problem in terms of structural issues, like police quotas, overwhelming caseloads, mandatory sentencing, etc., the potential solutions you see will be very different. The “Justice Gears” metaphor is one element of the reframing process that helps us reorient our dominant cognitive model towards something that positions us to consider a different set of solutions. According to the Frameworks Institute, the two other critical elements for reframing are the values and facts that most effectively reinforce the new narrative around the issue.

They tested the effectiveness of these facts:

  • Neutral – describing the impact of the criminal justice system on all adult Americans.
  • International – comparing stats on the US criminal justice system with other countries.
  • Racial Disparities – comparing effects of the system on African Americans/whites.

And these values:

  • Pragmatism emphasizing taking a “common sense” approach to public safety and criminal justice.
  • Fairness – emphasizing equal treatment.
  • Cost Efficiency – emphasizing fiscal responsibility.

The winning combination was the value of Pragmatism plus facts about Racial Disparities. Here’s an example of what messaging aligned with this value/fact combination can look like:

“Managing the criminal justice system more responsibly can address some important problems currently facing our country. For example, we know that communities with high unemployment, underachieving schools and a lack of other resources have high rates of crime. This problem particularly hurts children and young adults who may end up in the system. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. Specifically, we need to identify practical things we can do to address these and other issues. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people to prison instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our country safer and help all Americans. The system we have is not doing this. In 2010, seven out of every 1,000 white men in the United States were in prison. By contrast, 43 out of every 1,000 African American men in the United States were in prison. Clearly, the system is not working, and is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our society.”

The idea is that advocates will be able to start using this messaging as a way to start familiarizing the general public with this new framework.

As you might imagine with such a huge issue, the Frameworks Institute isn’t the only organization working on reframing. The Berkeley Media Studies Group released a report in 2009 around reframing violence among youth that touches on similar points, and also gets into some really interesting research around how to counter the distortions in news coverage of crime that conflate race and violence.

Have you seen any other research out there around reframing or other communications strategies? What do you think about the Framework Institute’s proposed framework? I would love to learn more about other perspectives or ideas. Drop me a line!

White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

Last week, the White House launched a second video PSA as part of its 1 is 2 Many campaign against sexual assault. Like the prior PSA (starring athletes Eli Manning, Jeremy Lin, Jimmy Rollins, Evan Longoria, David Beckham, Joe Torre and Andy Katz), the new PSA also relies on star power to carry its message, this time with actors (Daniel Craig, Benicio del Toro, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers and Dulé Hill) in addition to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

This year has seen quite a bit of action from the White House on sexual assault. On January 22, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” which identified sexual assault on college campuses as “a particular problem.” The president then formed a task force specific to campus sexual assault, which released its recommendations on the same day this new PSA was launched. The current situation is certainly not great. As of May 1st, 55 schools are under investigation for the mishandling of sexual assault reports. Fixing these issues is going to require a two-pronged approach: school administrations need get their act together in terms of ensuring confidential reporting, legal services, and counseling; and they need to get cracking on prevention efforts.

The new White House video PSA is aimed at prevention, and interestingly, though the 1 is 2 Many website says “Watch our new PSA on campus sexual assault” the video itself doesn’t seem particularly targeted to college students. Additionally, its planned distribution raises some questions: the PSA will air in select Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark movie theaters, over NCM Media Networks’ Lobby Entertainment Network (LEN), and in movie theaters on military installations and ships underway worldwide. I’m sure some of the movie theaters are near college campuses, but if this effort were really targeted to college students, I would expect something more along the lines of “this video will be incorporated into freshmen orientation programs.” If one looks just at where the PSA will be playing, the military is really what jumps out – not campuses. Oddly, though, the 1 is 2 Many website doesn’t mention the problem of military sexual assault anywhere, despite the fact that the mishandling of military sexual assault cases has been in the public eye pretty consistently throughout the past couple of years, due both to egregious incidents and the release of the documentary The Invisible War. It’s very strange to me that 1 is 2 Many and the media in general have been describing this PSA as focused on college students, when its message is clearly much broader.

The PSA video starts by stating that there is a “big problem” that’s “everywhere” including “college campuses, bars, parties, and even high schools”, and “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” Then it defines the problem as “sexual assault” and throws in the call to action: “It has to stop. We have to stop it,” followed by the definitional portion of the PSA, and a hefty dose of morals: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape. It’s assault. It’s a crime. It’s wrong.” That established, the PSA moves into bystander intervention, with various celebrities saying “If I saw it happening…” “I’d do something about it”, “I’d speak up”, “I’d never blame her, I’d help her.” The PSA ends by saying what should motivate this intervention: “I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution” and stating that it’s about “respect” and “responsibility” (appealing to a sense of values).

This PSA is revolutionary in that it specifically turns the focus away from victim blaming, and shines a light on the idea of someone who “can’t consent” which is important, given recent cases like Steubenville. The choice to draw on celebrity power is a huge plus, since people definitely sit up and listen to actors and athletes. There’s a clear sense of pressure from role models, and an appeal to shared values, which is always a good move (and perhaps a particularly great way to address the military population).

This PSA does, however, have some shortcomings. For one, it starts by defining the problem as something “big” that is “everywhere.” PSAs on gender-based violence do this all the time, and while it seems like it makes sense to set out the problem as a big deal, it’s actually a self-defeating strategy. If the overall goal of your message is to empower individuals to create change, the last thing you want to do is make the problem seem impossibly huge. It awakens a doubt in the back of the mind: if it’s this big of a problem, and hasn’t changed so far, isn’t it inevitable? How can anything I do make a difference?

This PSA has also gotten pushback for the statement that “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” This statement does two things: 1) it establishes/assumes that men need to think of women along the lines of a personal connection in order to see them as valuable and worthy of safety; and 2) it focuses only on female victims. Men are also the victims of sexual assault, but reports are much lower because men feel significantly greater pressure to remain silent about it. In the military, for example, men are thought to make up about 50% of sexual assault victims, but only 14% of reports. Hmm… with this in mind, it really feels like the focus on our “sisters, daughters, wives, and friends” is doing more harm than good, particularly given that this PSA is specifically being shown to military audiences.

I get that the PSA is trying to humanize victims and activate a sense of connection among viewers. While yes, I agree that a sense of personal connection shouldn’t be required to get people thinking about women as important, I do think that activating a sense of personal connection does get at the foundation of bystander intervention. People will step in to help their friends without thinking twice, but stepping in to help a stranger is a stretch. It isn’t automatic. It’s easy to start thinking things like: “This is none of my business. I don’t want to get involved. I don’t know what the whole story is here. Someone braver will probably step in. ” or “Nobody else is getting involved, so clearly this must not be a big deal” (in other words, the bystander effect). These are things we wouldn’t be thinking if the person potentially being assaulted was our friend/relative. The idea of the PSA is that everyone has responsibility for stopping sexual assault, which is a major shift from the victim-blaming messages we hear constantly about how women and girls are responsible for protecting themselves. This is a big change, and it’s not going to happen all at once.

That said, why can’t this campaign encourage bystander intervention among both men and women? Do we have to appeal to a gendered sense of “white knight” chivalry to encourage men to participate in shared responsibility for a community problem? A recent NPR article on bystander intervention does an amazing job of describing how both men and women can be part of the solution, even highlighting the actions of a college-age woman who successfully intervenes when a guy is harassing another woman at a party.

The last thing I want to say about the sisters/daughters/wives/friends construction is that there is a lot of silence around sexual assault experiences. A lot of stories don’t get shared, and so I think this part of the ad is also meant to be a wake-up call: yes, this probably has happened to your sister, your daughter, your wife, your friend. You just may not know about it. But hey, it also may have happened to your brother, your son, your husband, or your male friend. There are definitely ways this PSA could have worked to be more inclusive while still sending a strong message.

I really wish the video had gotten down to specifics in its final call to action. It sends a general “do something” message, which is inspiring, but not in a way that easily translates to action. What if each celebrity had instead said what they would do in a specific situation? Like “if I heard my friend tell a rape joke, I’d say it wasn’t funny” or “if I saw my friend leaving with a very drunk girl, I’d pull him aside and help her find a safe way home.” This would probably require a whole series of ads to accomplish, but modeling specific situations and responses is much more powerful than a general call to “step up and do something.” That said, this PSA is still a great first step towards creating a new social norm where it is unacceptable to ignore violence when we see it happening. If we want to accelerate the process, though, we need to start getting down to specifics, while paying attention to the full scope of the problem.

Lastly, I’m disappointed in the distribution of this message, given the fact that it’s coming from the White House. Having the message in movie theaters is great, but what about more frequently-used, mainstream media, like YouTube, Hulu, and Pandora? Doesn’t the White House have enough pull to make that happen? If this is going to be a broad message, then I want to see it everywhere. Where do you wish this message was being heard?

Street Harassment: Getting the Message

Street Harassment: Getting the Message


Originally posted on Huffington Post on 4/4/2014. 

On April 1st, HollabackPHILLY (a project of Feminist Public Works) launched a series of anti street harassment ads in the Philadelphia public transit system, including subway car interiors, bus shelters and subway station platforms throughout the city.

This is an expansion of the small but high-impact pilot campaign we ran last year, that quickly went viral online, attracting significant local and national press. Our goal with both campaigns was to familiarize the public with the term “street harassment” (gender-based harassment by strangers in public spaces) and define it as a solvable problem, as opposed to an inevitable “fact of life.” However, this year we took it a step further, employing some killer messaging strategies that we hope will generate even deeper conversations.

Last year’s ads were almost exclusively definitional. For example, since most people are unfamiliar with the term “street harassment,” the below ad links the term with specific examples.


Street harassment is often minimized as a “compliment,” and the below ad aims to start conversations around that issue, while linking the term “street harassment” to “unwanted comments.”


This year’s new set of ads build on last year’s definitional work by broadening and expanding it. For example, the below ad distills why street harassment is a problem: harassment communicates that people’s bodies are open for public commentary, and limits our right to move comfortably through public spaces.


This next ad highlights the seriousness of the issue, making a complete break from the common minimization of street harassment as “just a compliment” or “annoying.” Street harassment can make people feel unsafe in lots of ways — for example, street harassment is unpredictable. An example we hear all the time is how a simple, “Hey, beautiful” can quickly turn to, “Stuck up b*tch!” or worse when ignored. Never knowing what might come next means that even relatively mild statements can make people feel unsafe.


Other ads take it a step further, straight into bystander intervention. The following two ads give specific examples of what a person can say to support someone who has been harassed, or how to call out someone who has just said or done something harassing:



The following ads give examples of harassing statements, and pointedly shift the responsibility to respond from the victim to the bystander:





Some of the ads focus on calling out a stranger on their behavior or giving support to a victim after the fact, while others focus on how we can react when those closest to us — our friends — are engaging in harassing behaviors. All of these ways of intervening are powerful and important. If we want to see social change around street harassment, we need to start building up social pressure both out in public among strangers, and privately within our inner circles. This means it’s time to start stepping in when we see harassment happening, because simply being a person who doesn’t harass is not good enough. According to the principle of social proof, our silence when we see harassment happening to others is easily read as acceptance, and reinforces in the harasser’s mind (as well as others witnessing the behavior) that the harassment is socially acceptable.

The shift from individual responsibility to a community sense of responsibility is commonly known as a bystander intervention approach, which has become a gold standard for gender-based violence prevention. Viewing the problem of street harassment as a shared responsibility is a revolutionary shift, not only because our culture emphasizes individuality at every turn, but because this shift puts the focus squarely on the harasser. If we’re active bystanders, ready to intervene, it’s because we see someone (the harasser) doing something wrong. What the victim is doing or wearing is not even part of the equation.

To get technical, this campaign works to establish a new injunctive social norm. Injunctive social norms regulate our perceptions of which behaviors we consider socially desirable or undesirable. There is another kind of social norm, called “descriptive social norms” which describe our perceptions of those behaviors we see as typical or normal. We avoided focusing on descriptive social norms in this campaign, because they tend to backfire by reinforcing a perception that the behavior the campaign is fighting against (in this case, street harassment) is in fact widespread, and therefore acceptable. One of the most famous cases of this happening is the famous “Crying Indian” anti-littering campaign in the 1970s, which actually resulted in more littering by reinforcing the perception that everybody was doing it.

One of the keys to successfully influencing injunctive norms through advertising is to be specific. Just telling people that a behavior is wrong is not the same as giving them the tools to change it. Our campaign ties the problem of street harassment to specific situations, like “Your friend just said, “Is that a dude?” within earshot of a woman walking by and. “You see someone persistently hitting on the girl sitting two rows up.” We also suggest some possible responses, like “That was not OK,” and, “Does that ever work for you?” to start getting people thinking about specific ways they might feel comfortable intervening in the moment.

While we work to broaden our messaging through social change strategies, the bystander-focused ads circle back to deepen the definitional work as well. The ads above delve into how street harassment specifically affects trans* women, the ever-prickly issue of telling people to smile, and the harassment of queer couples. Street harassment is an incredibly complex issue that doesn’t lend itself to a simple, watered-down slogan. Our campaign aims to be as specific and direct as possible, while making space to open up conversation.

We would love to hear your feedback on this campaign. Share your thoughts here.


How the “Ban Bossy” Conversation is Getting Derailed

How the “Ban Bossy” Conversation is Getting Derailed

Last week, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook, of “lean in” fame), former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez teamed up to launch the “Ban Bossy” campaign. In a nutshell, this campaign introduces the general public to the idea of “bossy” as a highly-gendered word:

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”

The campaign also links “bossy” to the other “b” word often aimed at women in leadership positions, which is an important connection for people to think about (remember this recent Pantene commercial that got a lot of attention for addressing workplace stereotypes?). There is certainly an important place for conversations about degrading gendered language, but this is not the central focus of the Ban Bossy campaign, which states that its mission is to “encourage girls to lead.” Do you see the disconnect between the slogan and the mission? Because the Ban Bossy campaign specifically focuses on a word, it imposes distinct limitations on public discussion of the idea that the Ban Bossy campaign is trying to address: the leadership gap.

The choice of a word over an idea means the overall mission is getting derailed in a million ways: from people wondering whether “bossy” is actually “a useful descriptive word” to focusing on whether “bossy” should be reclaimed rather than banned (side note: hmm, are we really going there again?) to exploring the idea that not all good leaders are bossy. Don’t get me wrong – the money and celebrity power behind this campaign are certainly succeeding in drawing attention to the leadership gap in a big way. The problem is that most of the discussion around it is bounded by the distracting parameters of the word “bossy”, rather than focusing on the forces sustaining the leadership gap. The message is getting derailed because the Ban Bossy campaign breaks Rule #1 of framing: you cannot reframe by negating the existing frame. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, suddenly that’s all you can think about. It’s just how our minds work. The word “bossy” is a powerful, loaded word and it activates a certain set of ideas in our brains. That’s why 99% of the conversation around the Ban Bossy campaign is about the specific word “bossy” … NOT about the powerful cultural forces keeping girls and women from exercising their legitimate power to lead.

This recent New Yorker article on the Ban Bossy campaign is a perfect example of a journalist falling right into this trap:

“… ‘bossy’ is a useful descriptive word that invokes a particular kind of behavior. It’s not actually a synonym, derogatory or otherwise, for leadership or authoritativeness, nor necessarily a criticism of women who embody those qualities. What it usually connotes is someone who is not in fact your boss, or a boss at all, telling you what to do. It’s the kid in your social-studies class informing you that you’re doing the assignment all wrong, or the person on the bus dispensing unsolicited advice on child rearing. Bossiness is a common human foible—though it could also be true that women with authoritative ambitions who have been denied chances for actual authority may historically have resorted to it more. In my experience, the word ‘bossiness’ is a solid little stand-in for officiousness.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s missing from this paragraph? Here’s what: it completely ignores the fact that girls are being told that they are “bossy” in situations when they are actually fulfilling a leadership role and/or exercising legitimate power to speak their minds. Why would someone choose to use a “useful descriptive word” so inappropriately? Clearly, it’s to keep girls in their place. It’s called “gaslighting” and it’s not a new concept. Convincing a girl that she is being too “aggressive” or “pushy” when she is not is an extremely powerful manipulation technique. Gaslighting is meant to make a person question their “memory, perception, or sanity” and in the case of “bossy”, this gaslighting is specifically meant to make a girl question her legitimacy as an opinion-holder and leader. Adding a “-y” to the end to “boss” trivializes the word, so a “boss-y” person is a person with no legitimate power. Now, let’s stop for a minute and think about what we would call a girl who is exercising illegitimate power over other children in inappropriate ways. Do we have a word for that? Yes, we do: bullying. If so-called “bossy” girls are not bullying, then what is the problem here? It’s actually pretty serious: they are disrupting the social order.

The word “bossy” derives much of its power from another highly-destructive, gendered word: “nice.” The two of those words together set up a framework with significant power to keep girls “in their place.” By definition, a “bossy” girl is not a “nice” girl. A “nice” girl is generally considered to be pleasant, agreeable, and cooperative. She waits for permission and does not make waves by assuming power or challenging others’ assumptions or ideas. Where is the space between “bossy” and “nice”? It’s like the virgin/whore dichotomy. Unless we want to stay stuck in this no-win space, we have to step outside of the “bossy” v. “nice” frame and choose new words that do not reinforce old patriarchal ideas. If we set ourselves up to discuss the word “bossy”, then that’s what we’ll discuss. Yes, the Ban Bossy campaign has gotten people thinking about the word in a new way, and that’s amazing. But instead of taking away the word’s power, this campaign is inadvertently shoring it up.

New Dating Violence PSA Communicates Through Dance

This great new PSA from the University of South Florida takes the unusual route of using the language of dance to show the warning signs of dating violence.

Speaking Without Words: Dating Violence

The person behind this unique effort is Andrew Carroll, Assistant Professor in the department of Dance and Theater at the University of South Florida. Before entering academia, he spent nine years as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company in Philadelphia, and now he’s pioneering an effort to create educational videos on social justice topics. The nonverbal nature of his work makes it easily adaptable both nationally and internationally. This dating violence video is already being used by the Los Angeles School District, where 200 different languages are spoken, and internationally (Germany, Greece, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Belgium, and Belarus, among other countries). The CDC in Atlanta is also interested in using it their domestic violence programs.

Prior to this, Professor Carroll created a similar video on bullying in 2012. The bullying video was also quickly adopted by US and international organizations.

The concept of using dance to communicate and educate about a social justice issue is a great idea, because watching movement activates mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the brain cells that cause us to actually feel the feelings we see in others’ faces and the actions we see in others’ bodies (see my previous post for more info on how they work), and this generates empathy. Dance is not just ordinary movement, though; it is art. A dance performance like the one in this video is movement specifically designed to deliver powerful, amplified doses of emotion. Since evoking emotions is the number one most critical thing to make any message memorable and effective, using movement-based art to communicate makes a lot of sense.

I should clarify that I’m using the term “PSA” loosely with this video. It’s not an advertisement, but rather an educational tool. It’s much longer than a typical ad, and because it’s meant to be used as part of an educational program, it doesn’t have to have to be concise with its message. It can instead focus on evoking emotion and preparing viewers to delve deeper into the topic through discussion. However, I think this video’s potential for virality (it’s already making its way around the world) sends it into the public arena in a way that’s very similar to a PSA campaign.

Part of the reason the video is getting so much attention is the uniqueness of its nonverbal message. The only words that appear, right at the beginning, are: “Speaking Without Words: Dating Violence. Recognizing warning signs.” The rest is all dance. People have to use words to talk about this video, though, and it’s interesting to look at the choices they make. I first found out about it through this article by 10 News in Tampa, Florida, and the the thing that immediately struck me was that the entire article refers to “domestic violence”, not “dating violence,” even though the video itself specifically refers to “dating violence.” So are these two terms interchangeable? Not exactly.

“Dating violence” is a relatively new term, and is most often used in efforts specific to teens and college students.

“Domestic violence” is an older term, and it has a lot of strong associations. It tends to conjure up the image of an older, married, heterosexual woman being controlled and physically abused by an aggressive, violent man, like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy:


“Dating violence” on the other hand, is relatively free from such associations and aims to expand the images we see when we think about violence in relationships. The CDC defines dating violence as “as the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship“. So the main difference is that we’re not talking about married people/people in a committed relationship here. People of all ages can experience dating violence, but usually the specific focus is on younger people navigating the dating world.

Here is an example of the kind of thing the term “dating violence” encompasses:

Source: That’s Not Cool campaign.

You can see how “two teenage girls in an abusive relationship” departs from the pre-existing framework most of us have in our minds around domestic violence. If you asked a few people walking down the street what “domestic violence” is, it would be pretty rare to get any response referring to teenagers, much less teenagers in a same-sex relationship. It would probably also be pretty rare to hear a teenager describe a peer’s abusive dating relationship as “domestic violence.” They’re just not the same thing.

It’s not always easy to choose between a very loaded, easily recognizable term like “domestic violence” and a less recognizable but more flexible term like “dating violence”, but it’s important to think about it, because it can make a big difference. While a highly-recognizable term might grab attention, a less recognizable but more specific term might bring about subtle shifts in understanding and help create a stronger connection with the target audience.

Looking again at the dance PSA video, it makes sense that a local news channel would choose to use the term “domestic violence”, since that is the term its target audience – the general public – is going to most quickly and immediately recognize. “Domestic violence” is guaranteed to grab people’s attention and draw them in, in a way that “dating violence” might not. However since the target audience of the video itself is much more specific to young adults, it makes sense that it uses the term “dating violence” instead.

As a final note on terminology: if you think about it, abuse within a relationship is still abuse whether the people in the relationship are 13 or 75, dating or married. This is why people in the violence prevention field usually say “intimate partner violence” as an umbrella term. Unfortunately, “intimate partner violence” completely fails at evoking emotion, making it a hard sell for any kind of advertising effort. Law enforcement and the general public stick with “domestic violence”, and this is definitely the term that resonates strongest with most people (though clearly, the image resonating with them may not be the image a specific effort is trying to convey). Another thing to consider is that “domestic violence” can also include violence among family members that do not have an intimate relationship. This is often referred to as “family violence.” Since the end goal of a PSA campaign is communication, not perfect academic correctness, the best choice is always going to be the one that gets your target audience both paying attention and connecting with your message.

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 3.44.17 PM

Indian PSA holds up a mirror to street harassers

Indian PSA holds up a mirror to street harassers

An Indian anti-street harassment PSA video, “Dekh Le” (created by Whistling Woods International, a film school in Mumbai, India) has gotten a lot of press recently for holding up a mirror to street harassers:

This video was released on December 16, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the horrific gang rape that was reported around the world. It shows men staring at women in various public spaces, while in the background, a Hindi song plays, saying “Look how you look when you’re looking at me.

This video is great because it opens up conversation about street harassment, particularly staring/leering, which is regularly minimized as something to which women and girls “overreact.” I love that the creators chose to target leering behavior on the anniversary of the Delhi gang rape. It sends a strong message that rape culture is reflected in all of the behaviors that make women uncomfortable in public spaces. It also gets at the connection between street harassment and rape. Does most leering escalate to rape? Not at all. Are women and girls conditioned (with good reason) to fear that escalation? Absolutely. Sometimes a creepy look does escalate to an unwelcome comment, to groping, to following, or even to sexual assault. It can be incredibly difficult to predict in the moment how a situation will play out, which is why an action as seemingly minimal as a leer can send off alarm bells in a person’s mind. And even if it doesn’t escalate, having to endure rude objectifying staring and unwelcome comments in public several times a day is a psychological strain on its own and can result in people altering or restricting their use of public space. All by itself, leering is an invasive, oppressive behavior.

In the video, men’s stares are shown reflected back at them in mirrors that the women wear (a reflective helmet, a necklace, sunglasses, and a mirror on a handbag). The men see their ogling faces and immediately turn away, clearly ashamed of their behavior. I had a strong reaction to this moment, thinking “get real! that would never happen!”. To be fair, there have been reports of women who have talked to their harassers in the moment, explaining how the harassment makes them feel, and have had the harassers apologize and acknowledge the harassing nature of their behavior – so a positive response is not outside the realm of possibility. On the whole, though, I’m guessing the more likely response would be more along the lines of defensiveness: “I’m not like that” or “some women are clearly looking for attention” or “what, can’t people even look at other people anymore?”. This PSA is showing us an unlikely reaction to force us to think about why some people feel free to leer with no sense of shame, and why our culture allows that behavior to continue.

Leering is very different from “looking” or “noticing.” It stems from a deep-seated sense of entitlement to gaze at women as objects. This way of thinking is reflected and reinforced by the idea of the “male gaze” which refers to the dominant perspective in films, ad campaigns, and even comic books catering to a straight male observer; in other words, a heterosexual man is usually doing the looking, and a woman is usually being looked at, often as an object serving “merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure.”

The international anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback!, has been chipping away at the culture that enables street harassers for almost ten years now. In 2005, the year the organization started, a woman riding the subway took a picture of a man sitting across from her, masturbating. When the police refused to help, she posted the picture to flickr. It went viral, making its way to the cover of the Daily News, and sparking a citywide conversation about street harassment. Smartphone cameras are clearly an effective “mirror” to hold up, showing not only what specific incidents of street harassment look like, but how we as a culture look when we permit these behaviors to continue. The Hollaback! app allows for uploading both pictures and harassment stories to its blogs, now in 71 cities and 24 countries. [Side note: Buzzfeed reports that “in several regions of the world, some men feel entitled to leer at women in public places,” insinuating that this problem only happens in certain countries and cultures. This is blatant, incorrect otherizing of the problem. Street harassment happens all over the world, including the United States].

Some of the scenarios in the PSA strike me as being a bit subtle, which makes me wonder about how they will be interpreted. The guy on the bus, in particular, looks like he’s trying to make eye-contact and attempting a friendly smile. Even though the woman he’s smiling at gives him clear signals that she is not interested and does not appreciate it (thereby establishing that this is harassment), I worry that some viewers will interpret her response as an overreaction, because his facial expression looks more hopeful than salacious. On the other hand, this scenario could open up some great conversations about how, yep, persistent staring is still harassment, even if the leer-er is making a friendly face.

I love that this video uses mirrors instead of literally trying to turn the tables by showing women ogling men (which would be a total flop, since the power dynamic does not go both ways). It would be great if this ad went a step further and included a concrete call to action (maybe something about bystander intervention), but I think this is a great start.

As far as I know, this video is an online-only PSA which is meant to spread virally – and it’s doing a good job with over 1.3 million views! Hopefully some of these views are coming via mainstream websites, so it’s not just those of us interested in feminism/street harassment/advertising who are getting the message. Nothing gets me down like preaching to the choir. Have you seen any other great PSAs that focus on leering, or street harassment in general? Drop me a line!