When Shelby Knox was 15, she led a campaign in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas, against the town's federally funded abstinence-only education. Her story gained national recognition in the documentary The Education of Shelby Knox, and Knox's career as one of the youngest feminist activists was launched. Marie Claire called her "the next Gloria Steinem." But at The SPARK Summit in New York City, on October 22, she wasn't the up-and-comer. Though only 24, Shelby Knox was introducing the next generation.
Everyone gets the privilege of saying how different life was when they were young--it's as certain as the first gray hair or wrinkle. Only these days, the feeling that things have changed comes a whole lot earlier. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, branding--in the last few years, the lines between formal advertising, "the media," and social media have all but disappeared. The flood of information that is constantly washing over us has changed entirely.
Unfortunately, our culture's narrower representations of women have not. Instead, the stereotypes are now reflected and reinforced across an ever-increasing number of surfaces to younger and younger audiences. Avoidance is no longer an option. It's an ocean of media, and the shoreline is disappearing. So you sure as hell better learn to swim.
That's exactly what The SPARK Summit set out to teach its girl participants--ages 14-22--how to do: swim, and make waves.
SPARK stands for Sexualization Protest Action Resistance Knowledge. "We want to spark a movement," explains Deb Tolman, Hunter college professor, developmental psychologist, and one of the main lightbulbs behind the day-long event.
The Summit is a collaborative effort among 40 partner organizations, as well as individuals like Geena Davis, the day's keynote speaker and founder of The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The movement is against the sexualization of girls in the media. But that certainly doesn't mean it's anti-sex. In fact, the Summit is for something, as well: the right for girls to have a healthy sexuality.
"Everyone wants to be sexy, and that's fine," says Jean Kilbourne, author, documentary filmmaker, advertising expert, and the day's first speaker. The problems, explains Kilbourne, are that it is emphasized for girls at a startlingly young age, that it is to the exclusion of other qualities, and that sexiness is defined as one type of look. But sexy--this is repeated mantra-like over the course of the day--is a feeling. It's a way you can feel about yourself.
"We're taking 'sexy' back," announces Tolman, "not backing away."
Though the day starts out on a cohesive note--all the girls and women and the few men together in the Hunter auditorium--it turns out to be more like a feminist fairground than an organized meeting. Spread labyrinth-like across three different floors in a Hunter College building, the day is a hodgepodge of speeches, interviews, book signings, lectures packed with disturbing facts, and workshops on everything from street theatre to media literacy and flipcam journalism. And then there is the mingling. With MingleSticks.
A matchbook-sized white clicker, a MingleStick is like the physical equivalent of Facebook. Hold two of them end to end, click, and instantly you trade contact info and whatever profile or photos you upload to their website. They make connecting so easy I wind up mingling with a few people I never even trade names with. The MingleStick makes the day feel futuristic and cutting edge.
Still, with so many offerings, it's hard to know what to do or how to get there, and by the late afternoon I'm still not entirely sure what The SPARK Summit is hoping to accomplish. "Sparking" a movement is a great catchphrase, but how exactly does that translate?
Much of the day is spent on evidence of how bad it is out there, from the gross underrepresentation of women and girls in TV and film, to the insane products marketed to young girls: pole dancing kits, padded bras for toddlers, Bratz dolls dressed like sex workers. "Basically, as long as they're not going to choke on the high heels, they're fair game," explains L. Monique Ward of the University of Michigan.
Researchers on an egg-timer schedule explain the disturbing effects of playing with Barbies, and of looking at photos of sexed-up female athletes. The links between the sexual expectations for girls and depression and low academic performance are cold and clear. Still, educating us about the problem is just one step. Awareness is important, but what about action?
Just as I'm trying to sort out the answer, Shelby Knox takes the floor to introduce the panel of girl activists. "I'm glad to no longer be the youngest in the room," announces Knox to a warm round of applause.
The younger activists on the panel are Melissa Campbell, Carmen Rios, and Lexi St. John, ages 21, 20, and 17. From founding blogs to staging street theatre protests and even pitching a girl positive screenplay to execs at Disney, these are girls who are getting their voices out there, who are working to take the media into their own hands.
And with workshops on blogging, flipcams, creating your own podcasts, re-captioning ads and re-writing hip hop lyrics--to name a few--that's what the day has been working to teach all of us how to do. Create the media we want to see. As the day's host, Amber Madison, puts it, "You don't have to be a passive observer with how you're portrayed in the media!"
Currently, the media's treatment of girls and women has a bad rep, but we can turn media into a very powerful ally. Throughout the day we're given breaks and told to send a tweet or update our Facebook status. The Summit is being filmed and broadcast live online. The girls are writing and recording and posting throughout the day. The story--of this day at least--is getting out there.
"We're planting a global seed," Tolman explains to me. "Eighty percent of media around the world comes from the United States. We're exploiting that."
Well, if something's going to get exploited, that sounds like a pretty good choice.