It was the fall of 2007, the beginning of my Senior year of undergrad. I had been curious about the whole topic of “feminism” and “Women’s Studies” and was thrilled that a course could finally fit into my schedule. And I was excited that my professor was going to be Jennifer Young.
Jennifer Young was a young black woman with dreadlocks, barely 30 years old, and was a faculty member of the English department. For my small private Christian college in the midwest, that was all sorts of varieties of progressive. She had spoken at my freshman Convocation ceremony in 2004, and later, would be given the “Outstanding Professor Educator” award by my graduating class in 2008.
And she was awesome. Approachable, relateable, delightful and enthusiastic, she broke down the theories behind “Intersectional Feminism.”
My personal mantra
Intersectionality is the idea that all sorts of forms of oppression are not separate entities, but instead, interlocking. There are queer feminists and black feminists and Latina feminists and male feminists and Muslim feminists, fat feminists and feminists with disabilities. And feminism means different things to these different groups.
Some feminists may look at Muslim feminists wearing a hijabs and decide that since they are covering their head to please the Patriarchy, it is wrong and asserts mens’ dominance and control over them. That they must freed, rescued from their oppression. Muslim feminists view this very differently.
Or people might argue that Beyonce doesn’t deserve to call herself a feminist because of her overt sexuality, which is demeaning to women.
Intersectional feminism enfolds transwomen into its arms, whereas other branches of feminism (referred to as “TERFS”–Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) have refused to acknowledge transwomen as women, viewing them as infiltrators to their gender.
Intersectional feminism looks out for everyone, leaves no one behind.
And it was under this fascinating and enlightening umbrella that my baby feminist ideals were born.
Feminism. It’s a scary word. A lot of women refuse to claim it. Their statements are couched in “I’m not a feminist but…”
Do you believe that women should have all of the same rights that men have?
Then you’re a feminist, simple as that. You don’t have to hate men, you don’t have to refuse to shave your legs and underarms, you don’t have to be a lesbian. Just desire to be treated like a whole person.
Just listen to the nice lady. (via)
Jennifer liked the term “Womanist” for herself, a word coined by the author Alice Walker, steeped in the tradition of black female oppression. It more fully enveloped her own experience, but she made sure that we all welcomed the label of “feminist” as something necessary and non-threatening.
Our readings opened my eyes to a world of things to which I had never been exposed. Hell, I had only ever met a handful of people of color, so homogeneous was my hometown and also our college campus.
I learned about how some people are born “intersex,” with ambiguous chromosomes and genitalia. And it was way more common than people thought.
I examined what it meant to be “masculine” and “feminine,” and puzzled over the conundrum that masculinity was bad in a woman, and femininity was bad in a man.
I read about “queer parenting,” and what implications having same-sex parents could have on raising a child. Sure, I guess it probably happened. I guess gay people wanted kids sometimes, too. But I had never even thought about this before.
We discussed “Fair Trade” and sweatshop labor and the primary usage of women and children in the factories.
In response to a reading on the subject, I wrote:
“I’m a big faker. I think a lot of us Americans are. I like to buy Free Trade coffee at coffee houses but I couldn’t exactly tell you what that means. I just know it’s supposedly a good thing.
I like to buy things from world craft stores “made by a blind woman in Zimbabwe” or crafted by a Haitian artist.
But here I am, in my jeans made in Sri Lanka, a hoodie from Indonesia, Converse All Stars made in China, and underwear from Indonesia and Honduras. But my t-shirt was made in the U.S.A. My one saving grace.”
My world was expanding, exploding outwards to lifestyles and places I never knew.
And that was only the beginning.
In order to expose us to more cultures, more viewpoints, more experiences, another important part of her curriculum was her list of films.
There were foreign films from many countries, art house and indie films, classic films, and even some big-screen movies I recognized. They ranged in subject matter from poverty to religion to abuse to gang wars. We were given many options, and we were to pick a handful to watch and write responses.
And I quickly learned that every film she recommended was amazing, so I went above and beyond the required viewing.
I watched the 2002 Irish film The Magdalene Sisters, which was a chilling depiction of actual events that took place in the convent of the Magdalene Asylum, where girls who were accused of committing sexual sins (even if they were a victim of rape) were sent for penance. (You can watch it on Netflix Streaming! I highly recommend it, though it is a completely gutting experience.)
I saw the 2004 Spanish film The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro), also based on a true story. It stars Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic man who has been fighting for his rights to be euthanized for 28 years. It is a fascinating and compassionate look at this very complicated issue, and is brilliantly acted. I was able to find what appears to be the whole movie in nine parts on Youtube.
I watched the 2002 Russian film The Cuckoo (Kukushka), which juxtaposes three cultures and languages when a Lapp woman rescues both a Finnish and a Russian soldier left for dead near the end of WWII. While she saves them from death, she can’t save themselves from each other, as the men fight for her affections.
I watched Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma Monogatari), a Japanese film from 2004. It is one of the most eccentric and fun films I have ever seen, examining the unlikely paring and resulting friendship of a fashion-obsessed girl and a biker chick from a girl gang. You just have to watch the trailer to get a taste of the style of this delightful film. Also, the biker chick is super hot.
And I also watched the film which prompted me to write this blog post today.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring (bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) is a film that was released in 2003 in South Korea. (I’m pretty sure I found the whole movie in two parts here and here) or you can rent it on Amazon for $3.99
It was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was a narrative film, but it was so quiet. Barely any dialogue. Serene, huge shots of a small lake in the middle of the mountains. And floating on that small lake was a tiny monastery, in which lived a little boy and and aging Buddhist monk.
The film follows these two characters over the span of over thirty years, as the older monk teaches his student many important lessons.
After an especially cruel bout of treatment of animals, the monk forces the boy to examine what he has done. “If any of them have died, you will carry a stone in your heart for the rest of your life,” he cautions.
A young woman comes to the monastery to be cured of her ailments, and the young man falls in love. “Lust awakens the desire to possess,” the Monk warns. “And that awakens the intent to murder.”
There is a common theme of discipline and penance for wrongs throughout the film, inflicted by oneself and others. The Monk gives his fallen student an assignment after he has returned from a difficult life, in which he must carve out dozens of characters into the deck of the floating monastery. “While you cut out each one, drive out the anger from your heart.”
The Monk uses the cat’s tail as a paintbrush. Seriously. The cat isn’t too keen on it. (via)
And finally, in the ultimate penance for his life of transgressions, the now middle-aged student honors his master by dragging a rock lashed around his waist up a mountain. He journeys past the locations of all of his wrongdoing as he places the statue of Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion at the mountain’s precipice, watching over the monastery in the valley.
I was left in stunned silence, my heartbeat slowed, my mind soft and open. This film was so beautiful in its simplicity, its generosity in forgiveness. I felt transformed.
I return to this film often, at times when I feel the need to quieten my mind, to center and ground myself. The beautiful lessons at its heart are cathartic and meaningful.
I was in a funk yesterday. Being alone with my own thoughts, especially after so much introspection lately, I began a downward spiral into self doubt and inadequacy. I needed to press my “reset” button, and I knew how to do it.
I reached for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, and by the “Summer” chapter, I felt the knot in my chest begin to melt. I felt the redemption of the prodigal student. I reveled in the beauty of the final moments we see the Monk. I settled into the knowledge of the cyclical nature of things, the way balance is always found.
The papers say “SHUT” (via)
This film that Jennifer Young bestowed upon me was such a gift.
I was floored to learn that, in 2011 at the age of 35, Jennifer Young suffered from an aneurism following the premature birth of her son and died.
Why is it always the best people whose lives are cut so short?
It’s so unfair.
But she sent classes full of intersectional feminists out into our extremely white, straight, conservative Christian college community and the world at large.
And, in one semester, this amazing, beautiful, vibrant woman completely changed my life. She introduced me to the concepts that I now hold as some of the most important in my life. She taught me to see the world in all of its glorious facets, to look outside myself and through different eyes. She gave me my love of foreign and art house films, and showed me the power of cinema that boldly tackled issues and themes not often examined. A huge part of who I am today is owed to Professor Jennifer Young, and I will never allow that to be forgotten.