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Deborah L. Tolman Headshot

SPARKing Change: Not Just One Girl At a Time

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We hear all the time that we are in a post-feminist world. Where have all the feminists gone? Are they a dying breed? We have news for those either glad or worried about this post-feminism nonsense: the Internet has become ground zero for feminist activism. As co-founder with Lyn Mikel Brown of SPARK -- Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge -- a movement-building initiative that is dedicated to challenging the sexualization of girls, we have joined with over 60 partner organizations to engage girls to be part of the solution rather than protected from the problem. It is through building community, coordination and communication online that we have been growing an intergenerational movement of girls and women working in common cause.

And in the last two weeks, SPARK has deployed the Internet in a new campaign. But few know that it is a SPARK action, because of how the story has been told. Julia Bluhm is a 14-year-old girl who started a petition on change.org to demand that "Seventeen Magazine Give Girls Images of Real Girls." As of 10 pm on Tuesday, May 8, in just over two weeks, the petition has been signed by over 61,000 people. A mock photo shoot outside of Seventeen headquarters last week was captured by a wide array of press. The meeting that Julia and her mom had with the executive editor of Seventeen, to discuss how girls are represented, is a sweet spot in the coverage.

In fact, the press is all over this story, which has survived the 24-hour news cycle. Appearing in well over 100 media outlets, it aired as the lead story on Nightline last week, was covered in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News, and continues to ricochet around the blogosphere.

However, the account you just read is a very partial account of what happened. The mainstream media loves the story of a sole, courageous girl going after a media empire, the proverbial David and Goliath gone girl. Here is the untold version of the story. Julia is a 14-year-old member of a growing group of girls aged 13-22 who are engaging in online activism -- the SPARKTeam. Using the skills she developed blogging as a SPARKteam member, Julia started with a blog about her distress at Seventeen's representations of girls. She and her friend Izzy Labbe, another SPARKteam member, went on to interview their friends and peers at their school to make a video about what other young people saw in the magazine's pages.

That experience of activism fueled the girls' desire to do something more. As a member of the SPARKteam, Julia had a community of peers and of adults who worked together to translate that desire into bigger actions: the petition, the mock photo shoot, the media coverage, the public discussion of the issue. As SPARK's influence grows, we are learning both the power of intergenerational work and also how hard it is to get people to believe that women and girls can work together effectively and creatively.

In the last week, skeptics implicitly accused Julia of "fronting" for a petition written by adults. Media coverage surgically removed information about and evidence of the scaffolding that SPARK provided this Seventeen campaign. First the blog, then the petition were pushed out on SPARK's website, Twitter feed and Facebook page and reposted and retweeted by our partners, whose constituencies spread the word to their constituencies and so on. Julia was supported in-house in our private SPARKteam Facebook community. Shelby Knox from change.org, Dana Edell, SPARK's Executive Director, and other SPARK adults structured the escalating campaign, tweaking the petition with Julia, calling the press conference at which Julia and other SPARKteam members held their mock photo shoot, arranging and attending the meeting that Julia and her mother had with Seventeen, supporting Julia as she represented SPARK so brilliantly in the national spotlight.

In a nutshell, at SPARK, we are thrilled to have incited public dialogue about a practice that has been escalating for years and needed a red flag. Yet we are also concerned. To position individual girls as doing this work alone is a way to marginalize a growing movement. To cover over the real way that women and girls are not fundamentally divided but are working together feeds the image of the angst-ridden teenage girl disengaged from the fretting, frustrated adult. And that is not an interesting story for the media -- it's a dangerous story.

Girls and women are SPARKing change together every day to achieve what Jamia Wilson of the Women's Media Center, a SPARK partner, has described as "a cultural tipping point -- where sexualization of girls is no longer acceptable, tolerated or profitable." What is radical and what will in the end enable that change is the fact that it is women and girls working together, with the support of male allies, building an effective movement. That is what feminist activism looks like today. This kind of real story, this disruptive story, about women and girls joining together to demand a better, safer, more joyful world is being lived -- and it needs also to be told.