Bechdel Test: College Edition

I want to create a Bechdel Test for my classes.

What the fuck is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel, author of the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. Here’s how it works:

You take a movie – ANY MOVIE – and you ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does the movie have two named, women characters?
  2. Do they have a conversation with each other?
  3. Is the conversation about something other than men?

If you’ve answered yes to all three – congratulations! It passes the Bechdel Test.

Most movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test. This is why I haven’t seen most movies.  I’ve done this with other media, too – I got really fed up with most books when I was in high school because they all only had straight people, and my young lesbian soul was bored with it… but then I found lesbian fiction, and books that weren’t just about high school romance.

Most movies, most books, most everything are about men.

Many of my classes are about men/straight people.  I’m a Women’s Studies major, now, so they’re better than they could be.

But not all of my classes are WMST classes, and some are particularly frustrating.

I call one of my professors – to not-his-face (though he might eventually see this) – “Bro”fessor.  He calls male students “bro” and female students “girl.” He’s trying to be friendly. Instead I want to vomit.  He’s teaching “new new journalism,” and still, on a 13-week syllabus, we’re reading 3 women – and one of those women is interviewing a man.  If you ask me, a HUGE part of the new new journalism (and when we talk about NNJ, we mean journalism in the age of the internet, more or less), is the diversity of voices that can be heard if you’re looking for them.

Here’s my Bechdel Test for a syllabus and classroom:

  1. Are AT LEAST 40% of the readings by women or queer people? Are at least some of those readings from non-male-dominated sources?  (I say 40% here because we have to be honest with ourselves about the fact that women haven’t been prominent in academia for nearly as long as men, and there is just less out there by women at this point. This can change, though, and this 40% would ideally be with the vision for larger numbers in the future.)
  2. Are those women/queer writers, and the subjects they discuss, included as valid voices and topics, not just as asides saying, “This is what the women are talking about” ?
  3. Does the professor treat the women and gender-non-conforming students in the class with the same respect and attention as s/he does the men?

Oppression by omission is common throughout curricula.  Inclusion of female voices, queer voices, voices of color, disabled people’s voices, and the voices of other historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups is too often about tokenizing and including “diverse perspectives” to complement white male voices.

What do you think of my Bechdel Test for Syllabus and Classroom? Brofessor, do you want to talk?


80 Hours on Amtrak


I was definitely the only person on New Jersey Transit who had just spent four days on Amtrak, coming from Arizona, traveling by rail from southern border to northern border, almost from coast to coast.

The train from New York to Chicago got into NYC about ten minutes early, and so I was able to catch the 6:52 commuter train back to Madison, NJ, but with only minutes to spare.  It was one of those split-level trains, where you enter on the same level as the platform, and then you have to either go up or down half a flight of stairs to get to the seats. The train was full.  Rather than try to navigate the narrow aisle, I stayed in the alcove designated for people with bikes or who otherwise cannot use the stairs.  Men in suit pants and pressed shirts watched me from the corners of their eyes, trying to maintain their dignified stares at their iPhones without letting on how hard they were judging the flustered 21-year-old woman, shining from sweat, with two giant backpacks, a guitar, and an empty sport bag.  I hoisted the guitar, sport bag, and smaller backpack onto the rack, and sat, holding my big backpack steady with my knees, between two men who didn’t look up from their iPhone games for the duration of the trip.

I made small talk with the one man in business casual attire across the aisle, who asked if I had been hiking the Appalachian Trail.  No, I told him, I just took Amtrak from Tucson – 4 days, via Chicago.  Must have been quite the trip, he said.


I set out from Tucson on Saturday, December 1st, on the Texas Eagle, the train from LA to Chicago, which passes through Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis.  It’s a long ride.  So long, in fact, that it has its own song, which you can find on the route’s website.  It’s a long song, and a tedious song, which is appropriate for the long, tedious route.


The Texas Eagle passes near Big Bend National Park, and through the Ozark Mountains, and St. Louis.  Sounds beautiful, right?  It goes through all of these places at night.  The first day, passing through desert and scattered mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico, is quite beautiful – an echo of places I’d visited during the Border Studies Program. The second day – and the third day – were flat plains.  I was interested to travel through a part of the country I’d never seen at eye level before, but the initial excitement wore off by hour 5.  The next 40 hours were less novel, but provided me with ample time to ponder what it means that I can travel across the country on train tracks, literally watching the seasons change as I move north.

Staring out the window of the train, I have a tour of what I’ve heard described as “Post-America America.”  Almost every city stop used to be an industrial area, and now it’s not, or if it is, it’s a fraction of the size it used to be.  In Erie and Rochester, and through Illinois, giant buildings sit, abandoned.  Most of the big buildings that look like they’re still occupied are prisons – it’s a profound statement on how and why our prison system has grown while our manufacturing industry has shrunk.

Most people I talk to about my train trip have asked if I have a bed while I’m on the train. I don’t.  Had I been able to split the cost of a sleeper, I would, but it costs two or three times the price, and I actually have no trouble sleeping in the coach seats, fully reclined and inside my sleeping bag.  The trickiest part about sleeping is the fact that the seat, for someone as small as I, wearing mostly synthetic material, acts as a slide, and I have to kind of wedge myself in between my seat and the seat ahead of me, so that I won’t slip off while sleeping.

You can’t smoke on an Amtrak car.  It must be a new federal law or something, because everyone seems outraged about it, from passengers to the train crew.  Almost every announcement is a reminder that, “Smoking Is PROHIBITED in all cars of the train. The next smoke stop is not until THREE AM in Little Rock, folks, so set your alarms if you need a smoke, because the next four stops WILL NOT be smoke stops.”  You can’t smoke on Amtrak, no, but you can carry a gun.

I meet some good people on the train. A woman, sitting across from me outlines her entire model for being an advocate for people experiencing domestic violence. A mom and her two kids, heading home to Missouri, get off at every smoke stop.  The mom blows the smoke away from the kids while they run around.  She says she isn’t scared about them falling off the platform; she trusts them.  A great-grandmother on her way to visit family sits next to me in the observation car and tells me about the five living generations of her family.  An environmental chemist, on her way to graduate from her masters program, sits beside me from Chicago to Syracuse and shares my dental floss. Life on Amtrak has a much slower pace than the whirl of traveling cross-country on planes.  No one is in much of a rush.


I’m visiting Vassar, and walking across campus, and I hear the train whistle. The eerie note echoing across the city reminds me of being in Tucson, and it also reminds me that I could get on the train tonight and be in Tucson by Monday.  It’s an important reminder, because here, in the cold, drippy familiarity of campus, Tucson seems very far away.  The past two days have been a whirl of visiting old friends, hugging, catching up on campus happenings.  There has not been much room for deep conversations about the semester; only enough time to say, It was a really powerful experience.  Super intense.  The Border is really fucked up, maybe accompanied by a short anecdote about the Border Patrol, with a moment for us to shake our heads, fuckin’ unbelievable, before changing the subject to something easier to take on in the next fifteen minutes.  Pushing the reality of Tucson plus the reality of Vassar out of my head is a fairly straightforward process – far less complicated than trying to synthesize the two right now, while this familiar face comes in for a big hug after six months apart.  It is hard to even comprehend the fact that this damp, dreary city, with leafy trees and rolling hills, operates in the same time and space as warm, dry, Tucson.  In Tucson, the rough edges of cacti and the Catalinas rule the landscape, and the sky is so much larger. The flat expansiveness makes it much more difficult to hide the realities and injustices of our world.

But that train whistle blows, and I know it’s the same world, same continent, same country.  The two are connected, to each other and everywhere else.  I won’t forget.

A First Experience with Occupy Sandy

Today, I went to try and act in solidarity with my fellow New Jerseyans by volunteering with an organization I found through Occupy Sandy.  I had felt bizarre being in Tucson, not a cloud in the sky, while Sandy was happening at home.  My work in Tucson made me feel very strongly that I want to be more connected to organizing in the place where all my loved ones are – the Northeast.  I wanted to be part of the community response to the Sandy: people coming together to fill in the gaps that FEMA and NJ/NY government disaster relief have left.

The organization I found was a church food pantry, not too far from my house, and I arrived asking what I could do to be helpful to them.  A very nice woman who shares my name directed me back into the bowels of their warehouse, piled high with donations, and instructed me to start going through a table covered with toiletries, and draw a line with permanent marker through the UPC code (the barcode) on each item, to prevent their resale-ability

“Isn’t that terrible, that someone would try and take something they got from us back to the store for money?  To sell it???” she asked indignantly.

Well, I thought to myself, No.  If someone decides they need $4 more than they need a Lady Speed Stick, then they should go for it.  Wouldn’t this time scribbling over a barcode be better spent finding out why people needed the $2 more than they needed a toothbrush?

I didn’t say anything.  I hadn’t been there more than five minutes, and I didn’t know who these people directing me were, or how long they had worked at the food pantry, or whom they had worked with, or why they were there.  I didn’t feel right then, like it was my place to call out or make judgments on their work.  I also don’t and can’t go there day after day, and I don’t know the immediate community – I can’t commit to understanding the nuances of people who sell the goods they get from the food pantry.  So I did the work they assigned me, figuring that if this is what it would take for the items to get into bags to go to people, I should just get it done.

But I feel like I should have said something, or at the very least asked a harder question and said it aloud, like, Do we really need to try to control what people do with the things we offer them?  Is it our place to decide how they will best serve their own needs?

What would I have lost by giving voice to my thoughts?  I didn’t want to make anyone feel angry.  I was nervous about getting into a more involved conversation about politics and religion with people I didn’t know. And at the same time, it was an opportunity for me to create a discussion, and I passed it up.

I am all about giving myself room to feel safe, but this was a time where I felt acutely aware of the privilege I can hide behind that lets me err on the side of inaction.

And so I continue… learning and growing.  Gotta act on love, act on collectivism, build solidarity networks, and hold myself accountable.  Hold each other accountable. This is not a passive process.

We Must Stay True to Our Tears

“The public is not in danger,” announced Lt. J. Paul Vance, after the massacre in Newtown, CT, when the shooter’s body had been found, dead at the scene.

But the public is still in danger.  There have now been seven mass-shootings* in the United States this year, not to mention thousands of murders, by civilians and law enforcement agents alike; and casualties in armed conflicts around the world.  It is not a matter of “if” another mass-shooting, or individual death from gun violence, will occur, but “when.”  Unless we make some radical changes, we will continue to be in danger of dying as a result of gun violence, in schools, in theaters, in malls, in parks, on our streets, in our homes.

We have to start now.  We can’t wait until tomorrow, or until we’ve grieved, to start to take guns and weapons off our streets and out of our homes.  Children in Newtown, Connecticut just suffered the loss of classmates and teachers and mentors.**  They need to be supported in their experience of this trauma, so they can do their best to keep living their lives and growing into whole, healthy souls, and they need to be assured that they won’t bare witness to such violence again.

I’m not only talking about the gun violence that happens in Connecticut or Virginia or Colorado, either.  The family and friends of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 17-year-old resident of Nogales, Sonora, are grieving his death by the bullets of US Border Patrol.  When I visited the Border Patrol Station in Nogales, AZ for a tour with my Border Studies classmates, we were invited to hold the agents’ weapons to see what they were using to protect themselves.  José Antonio’s death was not about protecting anyone.  His death did not protect anyone, and now I can’t imagine that anyone walking along the Mexican side of the border wall, going about their daily lives, feels a greater sense of security.

Guns have no place in a peaceful society.  Guns have no role in creating a peaceful society.  Until we stop trying to pretend guns are important and necessary to the health of our society, we will not be safe from gun violence.

President Obama, gave a speech today about the tragedy in Connecticut.  Mr. President, stay true to your tears, and do something real.  Take real action to get guns out of our homes, and stop enacting foreign policy that results in continuously escalating violence.  We can live in peace together.  We need to come together, support each other, listen to each other, and do hard work to make it happen.

My heart is with the victims and survivors of violence around the world, from Connecticut, to Nogales, to Colorado to Virginia to Palestine to Syria to Iraq to Tibet.


**this piece was edited on Sunday, December 16, correcting details about the Sandy Hook shooting. 

Tú eres mi otro yo.

In Lak’Ech

Tú eres mi otro yo.                       You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti,                        If I do harm to you,

me hago daño a mi mismo.       I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto,                      If I love and respect you,

me amo y respeto yo.                  I love and respect myself.

-Mayan Traditional Greeting

In some classrooms in Tucson, each class begins with a recitation of In Lak’Ech, a reminder that we all are intertwined, and how we treat others affects how we experience the world.

As this semester of the Border Studies Program ends, I carry forward with me the words of In Lak’Ech,

Let’s build a world on bonds of solidarity and collective wellbeing.  Let’s listen to each other, let’s respect each other, let’s act on our love and make a world where we can all act on our love.

Yes, I voted for Obama

It was a hard call, between Jill Stein and the ever-so-easy possibility of just not putting my ballot in the mail.  Obama has been disappointing in many ways, and I’m a lot different from the girl who cut school to make phone calls and canvass on election day four years ago.  I’d never expected my first vote in a general election to feel so difficult.  But I did it – don’t worry, grandparents.  I cast my ballot for Obama, because my friends and I need Planned Parenthood, and we all need FEMA, and Joe Biden actually acknowledged trans* people, and I want to see what happens when a democrat that was elected under the banner of Change gets a second term.

“the violence a romney presidency would bring down on the bodies of my female and queer comrades is enough to make me show up to this election and vote for obama.”

-Adrienne Maree Brown, standing with: an election call from my body

A “Closed College Campus” in Pinal County

On Thursday, we visited Florence, Arizona, where half the population are inmates.   Before we left, I heard one of our teachers asking the other if she knew where we needed to go when we got to Florence.  I thought to myself, What does he mean, where are we going? We’re going to the prison, aren’t we?  I learned when we arrived in Florence that Riley’s question was extremely well-founded: there are (at least) four different detention centers in Florence, which is located in – this seems too tragically poetic to be true, but it is – Pinal County.

We received a tour of a facility  run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  It is a detention center for people who have violated immigration law and are waiting for their cases to be processed by the courts.  It is one of 6 immigrant detention facilities run by ICE around the country – the rest are run by private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America.  There are 300 facilities in total, holding 35,000 people in detention at any given time.  Because the people in these facilities are not detained as punishment for being convicted of crimes, they live in dormitories, and they are not compelled to work. Most have no criminal history, and none are considered “dangerous criminals.”  The facility was described to us as “more like a closed college campus” than what we might have seen in movies or TV.  It’s true that it wasn’t like what I’d seen in Law and Order or Locked Up Abroad or on the tour of Alcatraz, but I wouldn’t describe it as my experience of college, either.  No one marches me to mealtime or regulates if I can have clothes under my bed, and I also have the freedom to leave when it pleases me.

And that detail, the freedom to leave, is key.  Yes, you might be thinking, duh, Maddie, of course they can’t leave – they’re detained. But precisely because they haven’t been convicted of anything, people in immigrant detention facilities don’t have sentences. They don’t know when they’ll be able to leave.  The head of the detention center said to us, “We’re America; I can’t keep someone locked up forever,” but what he didn’t say is that he can keep someone locked up indefinitely.  The reason why people are being detained in the ICE facility in Florence is because they are waiting on the outcome of their case, which will end in their being either released in the US or deported to their country of origin.  Some cases are decided quickly, within a matter of days, but others take years.  This uncertainty creates a huge amount of psychological stress, often more than that of people serving a sentenced amount of time in a less “college-like” prison.

It’s also important to note that the people being detained in Arizona were not necessarily apprehended in Arizona.  ICE is a federal operation.  Where people are detained has much more to do with bed space than geographical location.  Someone taken into custody in New Jersey is likely to wind up in Louisiana or somewhere else in the South; someone detained in Seattle might easily end up on one of ICE’s two daily flight loops in the western US, bound for Florence.  The geographical distance people have from their homes can also have an impact on the result of their case and their psychological wellbeing.  A separation of thousands of miles can make important documents harder to obtain, as well as testimony from individuals who can help establish residence or basis for asylum.

We met with two women from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  after our tour.  The Florence Project was started in the 80’s, when a federal judge felt extremely uncomfortable deporting people who had had to represent themselves in an unfamiliar and complicated legal system.   Because immigrant law is civil law, people in immigration court do not have the right to a state-appointed attorney.  Immigration law is also one of the most complicated and confusing types of US law, a close second to tax law.  Thus, many people in immigration court are don’t have the grasp of the legal system to represent themselves effectively.  The Florence Project provides people with legal information to help them better understand their rights and their cases.  This is critical for the people that they assist, but there are thousands more detained people than the Florence Project and other organizations like it can assist.  Usually, the only person paying attention to a detainee’s case is their deportation officer, whose goal is pretty clearly indicated by their name.

We left Florence, passing the Detention Center run by the Corrections Corporation of America and the Pinal County Adult Detention Center, and some other big, small-windowed buildings surrounded by fences and barbed wire.  I thought back to our guide’s firm stance that his job was apolitical – it was only his job to enforce the law.  He wasn’t about to determine which “alien” should or shouldn’t be in his detention center.  He said he liked to keep things in very strict order in his center and prevent hierarchies from forming amongst the detainees, because, he told us, “When you give someone power over someone else, they tend to abuse it.”

I almost audibly laughed when he said that, because the absurdity of his feeling entitled to make that sort of statement without acknowledging the complete power he has over the lives of every single person in his detention facility was too much.  Yeah, this detention center didn’t look like anything I’d seen on TV, but it still had locks, it still had guards, it still had blue and orange jumpsuits.  Is that not an abuse of ICE’s power over people who come here without documents?  Why should these people, most of whom have no criminal history, be locked in the desert behind layers of barbed wire, marching from meal to dorm to field, waiting to see if they’ll be released or put on a plane?  So their deportation officers can make sure they get to their deportation hearings, and then, unless they’ve managed to establish their right to be here (and I don’t have the statistics on this, but I don’t imagine very many aren’t deported), on a plane home to their country of origin.  It’s another angle of the same racist and dehumanizing mechanism that Streamline feeds.

Looking for Feminism in Oaxaca

As a woman in a program comprised of mostly women, studying a phenomenon that has a huge effect on women, I have found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention paid to how the political economy of migration has affected the lives of women.  So in Oaxaca, I took every opportunity I could to ask questions about how women are affected by shifts in population and social dynamics due to migration.

I asked one of the few women we did meet about how she saw gender and sexuality issues intersecting with her activist work.  She said, because it was mostly women working to help other women, men weren’t involved, so it was hard to see if there were inequalities between genders.   I didn’t really know what to ask after that, because if women don’t see their work as something feminist or radical, and they just see it as the work they do, then what business do I have trying to name that with language I’ve learned in a classroom at Vassar?

I’m conflicted, because on the one hand, when I look at a situation where women help women, I can see how it fits into a broader framework of the US as a paternalistic colonial power.  But on the other hand, women who are just trying to keep their families alive probably don’t have time to think about how their lives fit into some theoretical framework that I’ve worked out sitting at my computer in my dorm. Imposing my feminism is not contributing to their self-empowerment; it’s just a different kind of colonialism.  So how do I leave that mentality in the dorm room?

I’m inclined to think it’s not as simple or straightforward as asking some women I just met about how they see gender intersecting with their lives.  My instincts tell me that in order to understand how women negotiate the gender dynamics in their lives, I need to just be with them, listening, asking questions, sharing what I know and learning what they know, so the inherent power dynamic of interviewer and interviewee dissolves.  I think feminism works better when it comes from a place of mutual sharing and trust.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

Taking Responsibility to Know My Neighbors

So I just got back from a two-week trip to Mexico.  We went to Oaxaca, which has the largest indigenous population of any Mexican state, and recognizes indigenous forms of self-governance.  Out-migration has a huge impact on Oaxaca, particularly as a result of US corn imports and industrial agriculture practices, which rendered subsistence farming obsolete.  Rural Oaxaqueños migrate to the cities of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and to cities all over the US, including Poughkeepsie.

Ten days of our trip was devoted to an academic seminar, in which we visited various projects around rural Oaxaca which are trying to develop alternatives to migration.  Seeing the different projects and talking with individuals who worked in the organizations was, in some ways, really special.  I met a woman who had lived in Poughkeepsie and came back to Oaxaca after spending seven years as a cleaner at IBM and other office buildings. She showed us the stream by their community, and we shared a joke about its being like the Hudson.  I think it was valuable to have the very real and emotional experience of meeting someone who I could’ve easily crossed paths with at some point in my life.  We were, in essence, neighbors.  If I meet Oaxacan immigrants in Poughkeepsie in the future, I’ll tell them I was there, and that will probably make our relationship stronger.

But it also felt kind of icky to be in Oaxaca.  I felt a disconnect between conversations we had in the States before we left on our trip about building solidarity, and the reality of what we could be as visitors in a place for a very short time.  In a few hours, all an organization can really do is give a brief outline of what they do.  I felt very aware of my ability to choose what I did and didn’t see.  Being in my position as a white woman in a group of Americans visiting these organizations which were compelled to answer to us felt complicit in the overarching mechanism of American colonialism.

And what this made me feel was a whole lot of guilt, and that’s a problem.  After some conversations in Oaxaca post-seminar, I feel like guilt is probably one of the most powerful weapons against solidarity and the kind of movement I think is necessary in order to break down systems of oppression.   As much as it is my responsibility to check my privilege and the ways in which I participate in the oppression of others, it is also not my fault that I have some privileged identities (my race, ethnicity, nationality, class background, ability status, cisgenderedness).  I have felt the way guilt affects how I participate in communities: when I’m thinking about privilege as a guilt thing, I start to judge myself and others, and both that entirely defeats the purpose of checking privilege and keeps me from forming meaningful relationships.  There is potential in this world to cultivate a really beautiful community of people who celebrate each other for the work that we do and stand in solidarity with each other.  I hope that when this semester ends, I leave Arizona with a broader network of people around the country that I will collaborate with throughout my life in different ways.  In order for that to happen, though, I need to do my best to shed this feeling of guilt, and instead celebrate myself and celebrate others, and do so out of love.

Check back later this week for my thoughts about being a feminist in Oaxaca and on this program.

SB 1070 In Effect

SB 1070 section 2(b) began to be enforced last week.  This is the part that the Supreme Court didn’t strike down; the one that allows local law enforcement to ask for people to show them documentation of their authorization to be in the US if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country without documentation.

Watch Jeff Biggers discuss 1070 on Democracy Now! here: