Professional pounder of the patriarchy.

Posts tagged ‘gender’

The Curse: Womanhood and Horror

While I wasted my obligatory horror film post back in May, I realised that I hadn’t really gone into depth about the underlying theme that links most (if not all) of the films on that list together – the way the horror genre exoticises and demonises puberty, sex and womanhood. Slasher films are particularly guilty of this. In many slasher films, especially in early examples, the “final girl” survives to the end of the film and defeats the killer. Usually, she survives because she is a virgin and the other female characters – normally sexually active women – are punished by the narrative for their promiscuity.

It’s true that women are often the victims in horror films that treat puberty as a cause for alarm, as a step into a world of violence and fear. However, there’s certainly no shortage of women who commit violence within the genre and, equally often, such violence is presented as a coming-of-age ritual for the female protagonist. Either as a victim or as a perpetrator, her experiences with fear and with conflict are integral to her “growing up”.

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“It’s corn syrup, Daddy. Want some?”

Themes that crop up a lot are menarche and menstruation; it’s easy to see why. It’s cyclical, linking it to curses and prophecies within horror – you know the one, “Every 20 years, the great god Cthulhu demands a virgin sacrifice.” It also appears predominantly in films that explore lycanthropy (werewolfism!), which in most myths is dependent on the lunar cycle. Furthermore, menstruation is the only entirely natural process in which blood is excreted from the body. Despite being an absolutely normal and non-threatening experience, it lends itself to narratives that treat menstrual bleeding as equivalent to violent injury like stabbing or mutilation. The point of the horror genre is to unsettle and unnerve us. What better way to scare us than to convince us (at least for roughly 90 minutes) that our own body might turn against us?

A good example is the film Ginger Snaps (2000). In the film, Ginger Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old girl, starts her period. On the same day that she receives “the curse”, as she refers to it, she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Her younger sister Brigitte must find a way to cure her before Ginger is completely transformed into a monstrous creature. There’s very much a conflict between the girls’ mother’s romanticised idea of menarche, the school nurse’s calm explanations and Ginger’s own experiences. Her transformation is marked by exaggerated indications of puberty – we see her struggling to shave off thick hair, her period seems to go on for weeks and her sexual awakening results in a near-death experience for her boyfriend, who contracts lycanthropy like an STD and has a period of his own. Of course, the film is hyperbolic, but when you go through menarche as a teenager, these new and often painful experiences can feel very much like a nightmare.

At its heart, Ginger Snaps is a film about sisterhood. It explores the complex bond between young women, related by blood or not, by candidly depicting internalised misogyny. The Fitzgerald sisters frequently denounce their arch-enemy Trina Sinclair as a “slut” and she responds in kind, but all the teenage girls in the film are a united front when it comes to boys and their tenuous, uncertain interactions with them. In fact, Trina’s death scene and her conversation with Brigitte prior to her death is particularly fascinating. In reference to seeing Brigitte hanging out with Trina’s ex-boyfriend, Sam (who helps Brigitte find the cure), Trina says to her: “If you’re so f*cking smart, you won’t give him the satisfaction. Somebody, just once, shouldn’t give that f*cker the satisfaction!” That doesn’t strike me as something a nemesis would say. To me, that sounds like Trina trying – if haphazardly – to protect Brigitte from earning a reputation like hers. The girls show awareness of the sexual double standard earlier in the film. Lamenting her bad experience with her boyfriend, Ginger remarks to Brigitte that “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door.”

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Along those same lines, menarche is undoubtedly linked with the onset of fertility and sex. It’s fairly archaic symbolism and bears less relevance in the modern era, as obviously not all women want to or are able to have children. In addition, not everyone who experiences the menstrual cycle identifies as a woman and trans women may not experience it either.

However, I still find it interesting. Take the film  The Company of Wolves (1984), for example, based on the short story of the same name from the anthology The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. All the stories in the anthology deal with womanhood in some way – whether it’s through menarche, marriage or sex. The film is no different. While it is admittedly not an easy film to understand, due to heavy use of surrealism, ambiguous symbolism and a blurred boundary between the real world and the “dream” world, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful film, but it does take a few repeat viewings to take in everything. There’s so much symbolism in every frame and it can be a bit perplexing initially. The Company of Wolves also features werewolves, although they are portrayed differently to the lycanthropes of Ginger Snaps. Here, although the film makes it clear that anyone can become a wolf, the werewolves serve primarily as an allegory for men. This stems from the morals of early fairy tales, which Carter extrapolates in The Bloody Chamber. The original tale Red Riding Hood, which inspired several stories in the anthology and also the film, can be interpreted as a treatise on virginity. The wolf is a predator, out to steal away Red Riding Hood’s innocence and “devour” her, but she must be vigilant and stick to the path. Carter’s retelling is far more feminist. At the culmination of the short story and the film, the Red Riding Hood character – named Rosaleen in the film – chooses to stay with the wolf who has tricked her and eaten her grandmother. Leaving behind her parents, the village and the expectations that they had for her life, she transforms into a wolf herself and they flee into the forest together.

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“They say the Prince of Darkness is gentleman… they’re right, a fine gentleman.”

Perhaps that’s the secret to making a horror film that treats women’s experiences sensitively while still being, well, horrifying. Strip the protagonist of her autonomy, stop her from being the focus of her own narrative, and you’re guaranteed to make a shitty, sexist film. Giving agency and a voice to women in horror doesn’t reduce the terror, but it does stop the film from contributing to real life attitudes and stigma.

Please like and share if you enjoyed this article! This is a subject about which I’m passionate, and I’d really appreciate it.

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What the US election should teach us

You’ll probably be aware by now that Donald Trump is now president elect of the United States. Here in the UK, we found out in the early hours of Wednesday morning and, believe me, it ruined my day.

It seems almost impossible. Days later, I have to remind myself every few minutes that, yes, this is actually happening. The US have managed to elect an unqualified bigot, who stands accused of sexual assault and only picked up politics as a hobby last year. There’s a huge disparity between Trump and the Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton –  Clinton is vastly more qualified, has 30 years of experience in politics and handled her campaign (and ultimate defeat) with dignity and calm. She failed to win over voters in the electoral college – although she did, in fact, win most of the popular vote – and this is largely because people simply don’t trust her. She will forever be linked to Bill Clinton’s scandals; she will always be associated with the disastrous handling of Benghazi. She is overshadowed by a political dynasty and that is extremely difficult to shake off. There’s some staggering sexism to be found in her treatment. Throughout the long, tumultuous campaign, it seemed Trump could get away with just about anything under the guise of “business sense” or “locker room talk”. Clinton couldn’t.

On the one hand, of course, this is wildly unfair, it does Clinton (and powerful women everywhere) a disservice and we must fight it. However, her party and the moderate/centrist movement as a whole should have seen this coming a mile off. It should not have been a surprise. She was not, in far too many ways, an ideal candidate. She should have been everything Trump was not, wrapped up in a progressive, trustworthy package. Instead, the Democrats put forward a candidate that is practically emblematic of corporate America. They lost because of racism, because of misogyny, because of the irresistible potential of a new license to hate under Trump, but also because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of habitual Democrat voters. They just couldn’t get behind Clinton, so they voted for a third party, they voted for an independent candidate, or they didn’t vote at all.

I understand why the American electorate might have opted for someone different. I see the allure of that. But the truth is: Trump is not different. He is not a politician – something many Trump supporters seemed to revel in, bizarrely – and is therefore unqualified. He is not anti-establishment, which also seemed to draw voters in. If anything, Trump will run the country like a business, moreso than any past president ever has done.

Bigotry and prejudice have been vindicated. People have challenged me about saying this and accused me of being anti-democracy, because Trump was elected democratically. If thinking a vile, prejudiced rapist should be barred from holding any kind of office makes me “anti-democracy”, then fine – I’ll wear the label with pride. Brexit was also chosen in a democratic, public referendum and it too was characterised by propaganda and prejudice. In the wake of Brexit, the rate of hate crimes in the UK increased by 41% and it’s not an overreaction to protect yourself or to fear for your safety now. We should see this as a warning sign that people are being mis-sold extremist politics that actively damage communities under the guise of cheerful populism. In the same way that the right here in the UK can cultivate this blame game (e.g. “the immigrants are taking your jobs”, “scroungers are fiddling benefits”), Trump and the US alt-right can masquerade as annoying internet trolls – which is largely accurate! – but also promote something much more sinister.

Finally, I wanted to conclude by reminding anyone reading this, American or otherwise, that this is not the end. We can mourn, and I don’t blame you – particularly if you are part of a minority group – for mourning and for being very scared indeed.

The main thing we should all take away from this is that we should still fight. We have a responsibility to make our society a better, fairer one. We have a duty to those who came before us and those who will follow us to make equality our priority. However, we also have a right to safety from violence and discrimination. We can expect to see that right abused and taken away if the surge of support for far-right politics continues.

Liberals, progressives and the left have to mobilise. Right now.

Is Ross Poldark A Hero?

If you’ve read the novels or seen the original series (I have done neither), then you probably saw the events of last week’s episode of Poldark coming. In Series 2, Episode 8, we saw the tension between Ross and his former lover Elizabeth come to a head… and it was less than romantic. Let’s be real: it was a rape scene. There is no getting around that, there was nothing consensual about it. No matter how the BBC or the fans dress it up, Ross was firmly in the wrong. He was aggressive (he had the air of a fairly dastardly Bond villain when he entered the room). He ignored her wishes (she asked him to leave her bedroom and he refused). Finally, damningly, she plainly and repeatedly said “no”. It was rape. But the handling of the scene seems to suggest that those involved think otherwise. The BBC haven’t bothered to try and contextualise it, the author’s son has praised their faithful attitude to his father’s text – written in 1953, I might add – and even Aidan Turner, Cap’n Poldark himself, has weighed in on the issue. He said of the scene in a statement made to the Sun newspaper: “It seems consensual, and it just seems right. He goes to talk. He doesn’t go to commit a crime. They talk and it seems like there is still this spark between them, this unfinished business emotionally. Certainly, that’s how Ross feels. He doesn’t force himself upon her. He is emotionally quite inarticulate. I don’t think he quite understands himself.” He elaborated: “It would be boring to play a character who’s just a do-gooder”, which I think is in somewhat poor taste. This isn’t the excusable behaviour of a rogueish ne’er-do-well. It was a calculated attempt by a male protagonist to intimidate and control a leading female character. In a popular TV series, to cast that man as a hero is unacceptable.

The response from the cast, the crew and the fans begs the question: why are we so willing to excuse the flaws of our heroes? Furthermore, is Ross Poldark a hero at all?

The answer lies both in how the narrative unique to Poldark treats its protagonist and in how fiction at large treats rape and sexual violence.

First and foremost, Ross is not a nice character. He is a terrible person dressed up by the narrative and the cinematography to seem like a lovely ray of sunshine. Oh wow, look at his Adonis-like bod… whoops, you missed him being an abusive, unfaithful shitbag. At this point, he is as bad as the series’ villain George Warleggan. George is violent, emotionally manipulative and arrogant, and we as viewers are encouraged to hate him for it. All those qualities could be said of Ross too. We are not, however, expected to hate Ross, because he doesn’t know he’s doing wrong, poor boy. I think this ties in with the comments Aidan made – that Ross didn’t intend to commit a crime. The implication there is that, because he didn’t really mean to violate both her body and her autonomy, it isn’t actually that bad. 

This is the same thing survivors of rape are told in real life. Rapists are constantly leaving court without a conviction. They didn’t mean to, you see, they didn’t know. They thought they had the victim’s consent, because “no” really means “yes” in the throes of passion, doesn’t it? That’s my real issue with this scene. I get why it happened. Ross Poldark, a desperate, angry man with a big, control-freak ego, feels betrayed and confused. Elizabeth is torn, caught between the man she really loves and the man she must marry to secure her son’s future. Something catastrophic and ugly needed to occur at this point in the plot – as a writer, I know that. I’m also aware that the BBC are adapting a book series from over 50 years ago which is set in the 1790s; of course there will be iffy ethics and dodgy morals. However, there are ways to present this scene without condoning what happens. They needed to pick a point on the spectrum, frankly – either she consented enthusiastically or Ross forced himself on her. Yes, there might have been a grey area; perhaps Elizabeth was simply overcome with her long held passion. But, unfortunately, there is a long history in cinema of what amounts to a rape fantasy, in which the victim will eventually enjoy an unwanted encounter if the perpetrator is pushy enough. Poldark, unwittingly or not, has signed its name on that list.

We’re at a point in the evolution of pop culture that, by now, we should have grasped that you can enjoy something and still be deeply critical of it. Poldark is not a bad TV series, nor am I crediting it with being some kind of moral touchstone for the masses. The cast are fantastic; the plot is (generally) well-crafted and engaging. The Cornish coast is the real star of the show, obviously.

However, my enjoyment of it doesn’t diminish the discomfort I feel. We excuse the faults of fictional men – and often those of real ones too – all the time. In a way, that “Oh, but he didn’t know” (which we’re all so fond of) is rather infantilising to men and it’s deeply violent towards women. Our media and our visual culture is saturated with this idea that all can be forgiven because he’s the hero. Ross, in my opinion, is very much a Homeric hero – an Achilles or an Odysseus. In ancient Greek culture, a “hero” achieved incredible feats, but always for personal gain. Our modern heroic qualities are normally more along the lines of selflessness and compassion. There’s a real clash of ethics there. We’ve blurred that line, I think, and now we don’t really know what we want or deserve from our fictional protagonists. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t portray bad people on screen. I’m also not saying that the main character of a film or book should always be a saint. Real people are flawed and they do terrible things.

We just need to be honest about that.

Still thought Demelza was justified, tho

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“What does a Feminist Society even do?”

Short answer: a lot. 

I got this question loads when I first told people that I was going to run a feminist society. I still get asked and I’ve already presented a third of my planned sessions (we finish next March). You might be wondering too – or, potentially, you want to run your own feminist group and don’t know what to talk about!

A point in my previous article about running a feminist society was that you should start by deciding what type of group you want to be. This is true of all good collectives – you should have an ultimate goal. Our group’s goal is simply to broaden our horizons as much as possible and to discover, together, what feminism means in today’s global society. Sometimes, that means we have to look back at the work of our foremothers, examining how they shaped the feminist movement we know and love, as well as acknowledging their failings and faults. Other times, it means that we must consider what our personal activism has to look like in order to create the future we want and need. We are a group rooted in the past, the present and the future.

But that might not be what you want. The feminist society you envision might not have many debates or discussions (like mine does – we do talk a lot!). It might be an action group, in which you organise protests, demonstrations, fundraisers and awareness events. That’s important and valid too, and you might like to incorporate those things even if yours will be a discussion group. For example, in honour of International Women’s Day next year, we’re planning to raise money for a women’s shelter and organise a showing of a feminist film in our college’s lecture theatre.

Another concern I’ve seen in forums and message boards is this: how do I come up with ideas for my sessions? A challenge indeed! I got started early, as soon as I was given the go-ahead to run the club. Sessions started in September, but I had planned all my allotted sessions by the end of June. This is definitely advisable; it gives you ample time to research (and design any PowerPoint presentations you might want!).

For our debates, I tried to stick to a “theme” for each half-term. The first half-term has been all about the history of the women’s movement and its foundations, as well as exploring intersectionality and diversity. We discussed the “waves” system, separatist and cultural strains of feminism (i.e. womanism, chicanisma), TERFs and early radical feminism. That made sense to me – it meant that everyone was on the same level and had the same grounding in feminist history. Our second set of sessions will focus more on politics and human rights, and how feminism supports and intersects with these.

Pro-tip: Google a ton of human rights awareness days and create your discussions based on these! There’s International Women’s Day (8th March), International Men’s Day (19th November), International Day For The Elimination of Violence Against Women (25th November), Menstrual Hygiene Day (28th May), Human Rights Day (10th December) and many, many more! If there’s an existing day of recognition, you’ll usually find it easier to discover resources online. IWD has an official website with downloadable information and activities, as do many of the others in the previous list.

You might also want to shake it up and show documentaries in your sessions (if you have access to a computer, screen and projector). Documentaries can be a fantastic way to engage your group in challenging discussions, especially if they are a little bit quiet to start with! It gives them (and you!) something to respond to, rather than forcing you to come up with an amazing point under pressure! If you want to incorporate this, YouTube is your best friend. I already had a few documentaries that I desperately wanted to show, but it’s quick and easy to type “feminist documentary” into YouTube if you need ideas. I’d recommend watching them first though!!! (There will soon be a “resources” page in the top-right corner of my blog, where I’ll link to documentaries we’ve shown/will show in the group.) You could also play music from feminist artists – we’re going to have a session on the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Maybe you could try craft activities, like handmade zines or posters.

Really, the best thing you can do is ask. What issues are your members passionate about? What do they want to talk about? What do they want to learn?

That’s all my advice for today, folks! Best of luck if you’re researching for and planning a feminist group. If not, why not? 😉

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Agathon and the Women: Effeminacy and Femininity

There is a definite prejudice towards men who use femininity as part of their palate; their emotional palate, their physical palate. Is that changing? I’m not talking frilly-laced pink things or Hello Kitty stuff. I’m talking about goddess energy, intuition and feelings. That is still under attack, and it has gotten worse.

– RuPaul

I want to talk to you about Agathon.

Agathon was an Athenian tragic poet and playwright, who lived from (roughly) 448BCE to 400BCE. None of his own works have survived in their entirety – we know of six titles and we have 31 textual fragments – although he appears as a character in Plato’s Symposium and in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria). Neither of these depictions are very flattering. He appears in the first act of Thesmophoriazusae. In the play, the tragedian Euripides is accused of misogyny, and the women of Athens have had it up to here with him. At the Thesmophoria, a women-only festival, they plot their revenge. Euripides plans to have Agathon – a man notorious for dressing as a woman and for his submissive sexual exploits – infiltrate the festival for him (although this doesn’t work out and Euripides’ relative Mnesilochus goes instead).

Agathon is mocked pretty ruthlessly throughout his appearance in the play, although you could argue that he gives as good as he gets; honestly, I wish he was in the play more. He’s heavily coded by the narrative as gay, he dresses as a woman (for writing purposes) and it’s implied that he works as a prostitute, but it’s the latter two of these qualities that seem to qualify him for mockery. Nobody would have had a problem with him being gay; the Greeks didn’t really have a concept of homosexual or heterosexual. You were either dominant (penetrator) or you were submissive (penetrated). Agathon falls into that second category – the category reserved for pubescent boys and women.

The reason I bring up Agathon (aside from his general brilliance) is because he exemplifies how masculinity and femininity intersected in ancient times, and there’s a lot we can learn from his portrayal about how the ancients – and how we – approach femininity and also what we might call effeminacy. Homophobia and sexism are both social justice issues. We don’t necessarily lump them in together or deal with them in the same way, but I often find that people who are passionate about fighting one of those causes feel some affinity for the other too. I also think many homophobic stereotypes and cliches which accompany depictions of gay men in media have their roots in misogyny and anti-femininity. That’s not to say the LGBT+ rights movement owes anything at all to feminists or to straight, cis women, but I do think there are some similarities to be acknowledged.

I’ve often argued that plenty of men’s issues are a direct result of our society’s demonisation of femininity. Men don’t have the opportunity to access domestic violence services and, even when they do, they don’t feel as though they can and still retain their masculinity. There’s a high suicide rate among young males, another result of constant social pressure to conform. This is when masculinity becomes toxic, something men have to labour under all their lives rather than something they settle into comfortably.

Perhaps this contributes to homophobia, particularly to femmephobia (discrimination towards feminine-presenting individuals, something that is perpetrated by gay men too, not just heterosexuals). Perhaps this insecurity manifests as resentment towards men who confidently, comfortably inhabit the space (a gap which is rapidly closing) between masculinity and femininity.

You might have seen an image that did the rounds on the internet recently, of a man wearing a “No fats, no fems” shirt.

no fats no fems

Yeah, okay, it’s a hella cute shirt. Yeah, it was meant to be ironic. But it highlights a massive problem in the gay community, this idea that “twinks” – feminine gay men – are letting the side down and giving in to stereotyping. In a way, it contributes to both homophobia and misogyny in one fell swoop. You can read a gay man’s perspective on “anti-campness” here, from Guardian columnist Owen Jones. In the article, Owen states: “This anti-camp hostility partly comes from a desire to conform to traditional gender roles, which gay men have already subverted whether they want to or not.” It’s all part of “internalised homophobia”, in which gay men (and gay women!) perpetuate harmful stereotypes out of fear and insecurity. However, this is steadily improving. I quoted RuPaul earlier. He’s a prime example; his series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a smash hit with eight seasons (and two seasons of its spin-off All Stars) under its belt. As drag has entered the mainstream consciousness – via the accessible “talent show” format that RPDR employs – so has the idea that mixing masculine and feminine gender expression is totally acceptable.

On a broader level – beyond just the gay community – I think we’d solve a lot of men’s issues far more quickly if we stopped enforcing this idea that feelings = femininity = weakness. Even now, being called “a girl” is a grave insult for many boys and men.

Feminists have always had a complicated relationship with both masculinity and femininity. When feminists critique masculinity, generally what they mean is more along the lines of machismo – a word of Spanish origin that denotes hypersexual manhood, denigration of women and adherence to a strict set of “masculine” traits. Men also put up with some pretty hellish expectations regarding their bodies and their lives. I – and most other feminists I know – give a whoop and a cheer when a plus size man is hailed as a modelling icon or when the internet’s latest sweetheart is “unconventionally attractive” (whatever that even means).

Owen Jones – I know, him again! – also wrote a piece for New Statesman about masculinity. I used a quote from that particular post in my Quotes series. He wrote in that article: “…the point is this. Being a man is not static: it can change and be redefined.” I think that’s the crucial thing. The more we encourage people, especially young people, to see masculinity and femininity as fluid, the better our society as a whole will be. The pressure to conform to a rigid gender role can be so damaging and dehumanising, and it causes a massive disconnect between a young person’s inner identity and their outward expression. Imagine a world without that self-sabotage.

Really, we should see gender as a painter’s palette. Blend. Experiment. Why use just one colour for the masterpiece that is your life?

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Thesmophoriazusae, spoken by Agathon. He has a lot of good dialogue in the play, but, after studying the play for my AS Level, this line stuck with me. I think it’s apt for what I do.

What you write depends so much on what you are.

People I mentioned/cited:

Owen Jones, How To Be A Man, New Statesman (x)

Owen Jones, What Alan Carr Taught Me About Gay Men’s HomophobiaThe Guardian (x)

RuPaul, RuPaul speaks about society and the state of drag as performance artWikiNews (x)

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6, Section 2 (x)

A little more about Agathon:

Agathon is credited with being an innovator in the world of Greek tragedy. Athenian plays were almost always based upon mythology, although they occasionally had their origins in history. Agathon is thought to have been the first playwright to have written an entirely original play, Anthos (“Flower”). The reason we know about him – aside from his roles in Symposium and Thesmophoriazusae – is because he won at the Lenaean Festival in 417BC. Greek playwrights competed at these festivals, showcasing their latest works, and it was a great honour to be awarded first place. I was especially surprised to learn that, as, in Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes depicts him as being an incompetent writer.

For more about him, go here, here and here. You can find PDFs of Thesmophoriazusae online, although a published translation is generally a better bet (we used this edition at college).

Dateline London, 17/09/2016

Just catching up on Dateline London (Owen Jones appeared on it on Saturday), and the panel are having a fascinating discussion about the presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The consensus is that Trump, while lacking in ideals and policies, is very good at galvanising and “inspiring” (for want of a better word) his particular demographic. Conversely, Clinton has the ideals and the political gravitas, but she hasn’t managed to garner support in quite the same way.

You can find the episode on BBC iPlayer here, although it’s only available for the next month.

“Women Transform Into Their Idols” – BuzzFeed

I just watched this super cute video from Ladylike, a series by BuzzFeed. In this episode, the team get to dress up as their female role-models. It’s amazing. I loved all their reasons for choosing these women as their role-models, and their choices said a lot about what each Ladylike member finds important in their own identity.