Purity, Slut Shaming, and Virtue Policing – On “Virtue Makes You Beautiful”

I’m always one for a good remake of a pop song.  Hell, I even worked with friends to create a consent-based version of “Call Me Maybe” a few years ago.

So when I saw someone post a remake of a song I absolutely hate for its really messed up, sexist message to young women, I thought to myself, “Hey, it can’t be worse than the original!”

Wow, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In short, I hate “What Makes You Beautiful” because this group of “heart-throb” teen pop-stars tell young women over and over through a myriad of cheesy lyrics that  what makes them beautiful is having no self esteem and not actually finding themselves beautiful.

Just what we need! Another song telling women that it’s “hot” for them to hate themselves!

And what’s worse, it’s a bunch of men telling women what they should think about themselves!

So when I saw that there was a remake out there, I was intrigued, hoping that maybe it would put some subversive spin on the terrible message.  And this is what I found.

In case you can’t bring yourself to rage watch the whole thing, it’s a bunch of high school boys with the help of superstar (within a certain world) Mormon musician Alex Boye signing about how women are far more attractive when they have the “self respect” not to wear “short skirts or low cut shirts” and that they are most beautiful when they are “modest” and “virtuous.”

Oh, and with the line “girls with integrity are hard to find these days,” they basically say that women who don’t “respect themselves” by dressing “modestly” have no integrity and only would dress the way they do to attract the attention of “a guy that only cares what he sees with his eyes.”

Ugh.

Okay. So it’s hard to know what all to say about this, and I can’t help but think that I’m being trolled with this entire thing, but it’s really popular!  It has a total of probably 500,000 hits in various copies on the internet!

While it may seem that I’ve taken to my blog just to complain about this nastiness, I actually do want to do more than just rage out about this purity policing.

When the song first started, I had hope.  After all, a message telling young women that they are more than sexual objects and that confidence and self respect and intelligence are all beautiful qualities could be a good one.

But this remake doesn’t do that. It sends girls and women some really terrible messages, but as an educator who works primarily in engaging men in feminist work, I am concerned with the messages it sends to men:

1. Whether by valuing only a woman’s sexuality or “virtue,” men still get to decide what’s beautiful. What girls and women think doesn’t really matter.

In reality, though, we as men should have absolutely no right to tell a woman (or any person for that matter) “that’s what makes you beautiful.”  Sure, we can be attracted to certain things like confidence and even particular styles of dress (though we should definitely interrogate that attraction for underlying sexism and paternalism), but women are the only ones who get to decide what’s beautiful.  If a woman feels beautiful in a niqab or in daisy dukes, her opinion is the only one that matters.  And by publicly putting out messages like this one, we are basically shaming any woman who doesn’t act in the way we deem “beautiful” as somehow the opposite.

2.  There is a dichotomy (a false one) between women who “respect themselves” by dressing “modestly” and slutty slut sluts who have no “virtue.”

Young men (well, men in general) get some pretty terrible messages about how they should think about women, but this false dichotomy not only hurts women for obvious reasons (I hope they’re obvious…), but it forces men to lie about our attractions so as not to appear “without virtue” ourselves.  After all, yes, we may be attracted to people who dress in what these dudes consider “modest clothing,” but we are also likely attracted to all sorts of people and styles of dress and ways of being (and not just women, but I’ll get to that later).

When we claim that we think it’s wrong for women to be anything but “virtuous” in this strict construction of virtue, we end up shaming women while casting ourselves into guilt and shame when we find women attractive who don’t fit the “virtuous” profile. It’s just unhealthy, repressed sexuality mixed in with some good, old-fashioned slut shaming!

The reality is that a person can dress modestly and be a terrible, mean, downright nasty person, and another person can have all the integrity in the world and love to show their beautiful thighs to everyone while riding their cruiser bike.  How we as humans dress says nothing about our character!

3.  Men have the right to body police and slut shame women so long as we do it through positive language like “modesty” and “virtue.”

I would guess that if I asked most of these guys if they think it’s wrong to yell “SLUT” at a woman on the street who is wearing a low-cut top, they would say yes (even if, in practice, they might do it).  Yet that’s exactly what they are doing, only in reverse.

They are yelling singing publicly that women who dress “modestly” are “virtuous” and “beautiful,” they are slut shaming without ever yelling impolite words.  This allows us as men to feel like we’re being honorable when we’re really no different than the men on the street who harass women for what they wear.

4.  Guys are and should only be attracted to women.

Finally, I know without a shadow of a doubt that they meant it to be this way, but watching this video, you would think that men only are ever attracted to women.  Why is this hurtful?  Well, LGBTQQAAI young people who grow up in “purity cultures” like that pushed by this video live in worlds founded on guilt, shame, hurt, and violence, and they take their lives in staggering numbers.  Thus, though it’s not the focus of the video, the heterosexism present also hurts.  Who knows, maybe it’s hurting one of the people acting in the video!

In essence, this was a bit of a rant.  But it was meant to be more than that!  It was meant to be a call to consider how “purity” and “virtue” messages like this one are actually really damaging, and we need more adult men (I’m looking at you, Alex Boye) to call young men to consider why this hurts everyone.

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A Message to Megyn Kelly: Jesus Wasn’t White

In case you missed it, Aisha Harris wrote a really awesome piece about how it’s about time we stop depicting Santa as an old White dude and start picturing him as a penguin.

Aaaand then this happened:

Yeah . . . You heard that right.  “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?”

Ummmmm . . . No.

Megyn, let’s start by talking about geography.  I’m sure you know most of this, but it’s worthy of review.  Jesus was born and lived in the historical land of Palestine/Israel.  It’s in the Middle East.

What that means is that Jesus was most likely an Arab Jew (though he may also have had some darker-skinned, North African roots).  If you’ve never met an Arab Jew, here are a few modern Arab Jews who might act as a good reference.

So Jesus likely looked more like these folks than like this:

Beyond all of speculation about the color of his skin, though, there’s the contention that Jesus was “White.”  Considering that our modern understanding of Whiteness came about in the process of European colonization, particularly the colonization of North America.  There was a long history of Europeans looking down upon darker-skinned people from other continents, but the idea that all or most European people were of the same “race” was laughable until it was needed as a tool of control in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s.

Thus, even if Jesus HAD been light-skinned and blue-eyed, he wouldn’t have been White.  He would have been seen as a Semitic Canaanite, someone “other” to the Europeans like the Romans or Greeks who made their way through the region.

My point is this: if your goal is to further the racist hierarchy established by rich Europeans (people we now would consider White) by distorting history, then we see you.  We’re on to you.  And we won’t let it stand.

If, on the other hand, you’re just that ignorant of history (which I highly doubt since you are a brilliant, well-educated woman), then please do me a favor and read this.

Oh, and also check out this phenomenal follow up from Aisha Harris.

“Jesus Wasn’t White” – Reflections on Race, Power, and Christian Symbolism

When I taught a Freshmen Social Studies class called “World Studies,” I always made sure that we spent 6 weeks on a unit on major world religions.  After all, one path to peace is through education and understanding.  During that unit, I described the most basic teachings of many of the world’s major religions.  Considering that I taught in a primarily-Black school, when I put together a slideshow about Christianity, I included this picture of Jesus:

Upon coming to this slide in the class, I was astounded to hear my mostly-Black students saying things like, “That’s not Jesus!” or “Jesus wasn’t Black!  He was White!”

“How do you know,” I asked the students.  “Have you ever seen Jesus?”

One kid responded, “I’ve been Christian my whole life, and I’ve never seen a Black Jesus.”

I thought of this story when I visited the Focus on the Family Visitor’s Center in Colorado Springs yesterday.  I was curious to see what such a place would be like considering that I often find myself on the opposite side of many issues from Focus on the Family when advocating for political change.  Among other things, I learned that “Homosexuality has a cure! It’s Jesus!”  I also learned that there is some unexplained connection between a teenager who looks at porn and abortion-rights advocacy.

After a while of looking around, I wandered into the book store.  I noticed that there were lots of paintings and figurines of Jesus around for purchase, but something seemed amiss.  In every single depiction of the man, Jesus was white!

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My Journey and My Own Religious Bigotry

Jamie in 2nd Grade - Around the age I started training to be a lector

I’ve had some pretty negative experiences with religion in my life . . . particularly with Christianity.  Well, let me back up and give you a little information about my Christian experience.  I was born and raised Catholic, baptized in the church.  My family went to church every single weekend, and it was made clear to us that going to church was not really a choice.  We had to attend.  I went to Catholic school for 9 years, and I was the one of the youngest lectors in my church’s history, reading the gospel in front of hundreds of people at mass in the from about 9 years old until I was 16.

I was always incredibly inquisitive.  I remember when I was probably in 3rd or 4th grade asking the priest at school what it means if I don’t believe (as Catholics do) that the bread and wine we eat and drink on Sunday is ACTUALLY the body and blood of Christ.  What if I don’t believe that I am actually eating God’s skin and blood?  I was told, “Well, then you’re not really a Catholic.  You see . . . that is one of the core beliefs of Catholicism.”  Of course, then, I fell into line . . . more so out of fear than out of belief.

As I grew older, I became frustrated with much of the hypocrisy I saw in the Catholic church and in other Christian denominations as well.  I read the Gospel and saw the teachings of Christ as a call to serve, as a call to caste off worldly desire and possession and work for justice.  “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the head of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:24).  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:20-21).  Yet I didn’t see this in the Christians or the Christianity practiced around me.

I saw Christ’s message as one of pacifism rather than the bellicose preachings I was hearing from those in my church and elsewhere.  “You have heard it said, ‘An Eye for and Eye, and a Tooth for a Tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other” (Matthew 5:38-39).  Yet I saw Christians leading charges for war around the world.

I saw hypocrisy, and for many years I sowed seeds of doubt.  In time, I came to feel that while Christ has always been one of those I look up to as I search for how to lead my life, I could not say comfortable that Christ and God were one in the same.  I announced to my family that I could no longer attend church with them and that I no longer considered myself Christian.

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