Transforming Space: How Julie Andrew’s Netflix Series is Re-defining the Arts, and Accidentally, Society

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Julie Andrews is of course, the epitome of class. This, much like the fact that Oreos taste better with milk, is one of the few truths that remain undisputed in this day and age. Nevertheless, unlike others who are thought to embody the idea of class, Julie Andrews is not sitting pretty in a sedan chair. Her new show “Julie’s Green Room”, a Netflix original production, is revolutionary on so many levels, that whether or not she know its, she is pushing back against years of discrimination and oppression.

However, to some, the theater, where Julie’s new show takes place, is simply a backwards-dying art form that is a traditional stronghold of the misogynist racist patriarchy. Yes, to some, the century-old plays performed incarnate the very evils and stereotypes many progressives seek to combat. To many non-white actors, the theater is a reminder that non-whites are only seen as background players, side-kicks, or stereotypes to be made fun of and ridiculed. And to many women, the “casting couch” is an awful reminder that women’s bodies are not their own, and that those who control the theater’s purse strings, still claim benefits way beyond the scope of monetary re-imbursement.

However, even with all of its issues, lamentable realities, and still antiquated politics, the theater survives, shines, and despite it all, still thrives. Moreover, Julie Andrews’ character, Ms. Julie, gracefully reclaims this space, and re-imagines the theater as a place for all. Many an episode has brought me on the verge of tears and has demonstrated just how beautiful a society that is inclusive can truly be. But how exactly do you lead a revolution with class and poise? How on earth, does Dame Julie Andrews remind us that the status quo is not to be indulged but that it should be rebuked and transformed?

Ms. Julie fundamentally wants to show to her young students, The Greenies, the magic of the theater. She wants to walk them through the spectacular experience that the arts can create. This is the pull of the theater, the suspension of disbelief. This is what the arts call us to do, if only for a moment. However Ms. Julie does not stop at only highlighting the fun escapist tendencies that the theater can indulge, but she powerfully believes that you within this fabulous context of the theater can be just as spectacular as the costumes, special effects, and wonderful stories being shared. She believes that anyone can be anything in the theater. Here you are limitless.

Diversity is often time quoted as a huge obstacle in the American arts scene, and recent boycotts of the Oscars have raised the visibility of this issue. Ms. Julie gleefully jumps into the fray and without saying anything does her own to fight back. Her cast of students (read puppets) is comprised of different races, genders, and abilities. Her characters come from different backgrounds and are of different abilities. Through the virtue of her cast of puppets being diverse, she is saying that not only anybody can perform the arts but she is also saying that everybody and anybody HAS a place in the arts. It is so comfortable so seamless, that it does not have the, let’s be honest, sometimes awkward tone some affirmative action programs have, in which “special” roles or stories are made to give non-whites a pre-manufactured “voice.” The Greenies all participate in all roles. Asian or Latino, an eager young actress can still play a princess. Wheel chair or not, the talented young boy can play the prince. Black or not, the enthusiastic and dedicated budding actor can bring alive the character of a wizard. By simply putting these actors into these roles Ms. Julie is iterating a new reality where color is transformed into new incarnations and representations. The black actor playing the wizard is not whitewashed in order to play a wizard, he simply is the wizard. By putting non-white actors in conventionally white roles, Ms. Julie challenges the idea of how we see certain races and pushes the audience to reconsider the limits that they have imposed on certain individuals and bodies. Furthermore, the show goes beyond living in a “colorblind” world and beautifully highlights the wonder that each culture is. One of the most touching moments of the show is when one of the young students, assigned to play the princess, admits that she wants her princess’ costume to reflect that the princess is also strong and a warrior. It is brought up that princesses around the world do not all look the same, and that different cultures have their own versions of what princesses can be and do. The young actress says that she is Mexican and wonders if her cultural heritage has something to help her capture her own idea of a strong princess. The show insightfully reveals that past Aztec princesses were also warriors, and the young Fizz is delighted with this discovery and immediately sees to it that her princess costume is transformed into a wonderful Aztec princess ensemble. Ms. Julie is also excited with the transformation and Fizz is ecstatic that her costume reflects an empowered version of the character that she wants to play. By looking into Fizz’ cultural heritage, the show honors her roots, and instead of ignoring them, the show engages them and admits that she brings with her a treasure trove of cultural and intellectual achievements. Fizz is able to be her full self and in doing so, she adds to the story and to the magic of the workshop. Had her past simply been ignored, her princess would have been outdated and static. Instead, Fizz’ personality shines, and her racial identity is celebrated, and because it has been affirmed, the traditional view of a princess is challenged, and she is able to give the princess, a modern edge.

However Ms. Julie’s revolution is not confined to only race and diversity. This revolution also upsets gender norms and roles. As mentioned above, the traditional helpless princess is transformed into a warrior princess. Girl is powerful. Girl has agency. Girl can make change happen. However the revolution is a quiet revolution in other cases. Another character called Riley, a young girl, is interested in inventions, technology, and robots. Ms. Julie never says anything but only encourages. Riley becomes an essential part of the workshop as she creates special effects machines, helps with highlighting the achievements of invited guests, and aids in the management of all things backstage on the night on the play’s premiere. Oh, and Riley also plays the jester, a character which by definition is funny, throwing shade at the still believed idea that women somehow are not funny and are not very good at comedy. But I digress! On the show, Ms. Julie fights to break the glass ceiling for all, including the young men in her cast. In an episode about dance, the Greenies learn about ballet and the skill that it takes to perform it. However, the boys in the workshop are turned off by the fact that ballet involves wearing “tutus” and “twirling around.” It is explained that ballet takes an enormous amount of work, practice, and physical strength, and that this art form strives to tell a story through movement. At this moment, the show launches into a clip of people with disabilities participating in dance and ballet. The young boys realize that dance can express a narrative and they consequently understand that indeed anyone can engage in ballet, and that it is something that has no gender but is simply another powerful tool in their arsenal as performers and story-tellers.

But in the end, what is most striking about the show is how it is able to include students of all abilities. The addition of a young student in a wheel chair, having as much fun, fully participating, and adding as much to the workshop experience as anyone else is incredible to witness. Re-imagining life in a wheel chair is necessary in order to see these persons as simply people first. Incidentally I highly recommend the PBS documentary on how the Person’s With Disabilities Act was passed. It is a stunning portrayal of how people with disabilities are full of agency, force, and are masters of their own destiny. So good! But to bring it back home, how does Ms. Julie lead in all of this? Simply by accepting. She never mentions the wheel chair when referring to Hank, he is not “the kid in the wheelchair” he is simply Hank. And she treats Hank with the same respect as all the other students. Still, the wheelchair is addressed in one episode. It turns out (spoiler alert) that Hank is cast as the prince in the workshop’s original production. However the prince has to ride a horse in most of the play and Hank starts to feel self-conscience about his wheel chair. However the Greenies brainstorm and support him in his moment of self-doubt. Together, the students come up with a creative solution and outfit Hank’s chair to look like a horse. The costume is created for the chair, and it works splendidly!

But wait, there is more! As if upsetting race, gender, and perspectives on people with disabilities wasn’t enough, Ms. Julie also challenges the idea of who is capable of intellectual creation and production. What in the world even is that? Well, there is a rumor that has been taken as fact, that states that great works of art can only be found in Europe and the United States. Even in the 21st century, works outside of the “West” are sometimes viewed as quaint trinkets of the primitive past that cannot be compared to a Picasso, Bruegel, or Warhol. This feeds into the false narrative that somehow only those who are Europeans, or their descendants can produce “great” works. Ms. Julie proposes a new world in which everyone’s intellectual sophistication and greatness is acknowledged. The final production put on by the Greenies is an original piece called, “Mash-Up: The Musical.” It is a work of art that was developed through out the course of the workshop’s duration and which reflects the voices of everyone. This single-handily pushes back against the myth that has been perpetuated for centuries that non-white works of art are derivative and not valid and are not full of intrinsic value in themselves. “Mash-Up” is a resounding success, and its triumph shows that people from all walks of life can not only collaborate but also that we can all significantly, strategically, and undeniably magnificently contribute to the arts.

If ever there were a how-to guide for leading a revolution with class, this would be it. But at the end of the day, there really isn’t anything outspoken or difficult about what Ms. Julie does. She simply allows her students to be who they are, and gives them the opportunity to dream. To be limitless.

Perhaps this is why the arts are still with us after all these years. It is one of the few spaces where you are allowed to be what you conventionally are not allowed to express in the outside world. The dream would be perhaps to bring this understanding of space into the world beyond the theater, that perhaps the whole world would become a place where people simply being themselves is enough. But until then, may you start your own mini-revolutions in your own lives, remembering that indeed, the whole world is a stage. 😉

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Status Quo Cinema: Moana, Arrival, and Finding Dory, 21st Century Productions with Antiquated Scripts

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It must be applauded that this year a series of mostly well thought out films with strong female leads graced the cinema screens of America. Yet, despite the triumphing heroines found in movies such as Moana, Arrival, and Finding Dory, each of these movies was still lacking. Or at least, I felt they still held up the helm of the traditional status quo.

A very smart friend of mine once said, “I just want a movie where the film plot is driven by action and not by a woman’s gender. Why can’t we just have a good story where the character just happens to be a girl?” This has been a bit of a standard for me in evaluating how meaningful a movie is in terms of re-defining womanhood. And although the mentioned films more or less reach this expectation they still fell flat of re-inventing what the 21st century American can expect from a female lead.

The production in these movies was impressive and avant-garde but their heroines were anything but this.

Although Moana, Arrival, and Dory all end with a female-lead saving the day, the films still re-enforce the traditional script of what a woman is actually capable of. Each of these characters wins through a distinctly female talent. Or what is at least ascribed as female. I was disappointed to see in Moana that half of the movie is her giving free therapy to Maui the down and out demi-god. She is constantly acting as his sidekick and trying to encourage him to believe in who he is. It is an overdone trope of the girl trying to save the guy, it’s just a childish variation on the “doe-eyed pixie girl trying to save the boring dead inside white male hero” only with boats and cute coconut villains. Please spare me. I would have much rather had her focus on how to restore the heart of the world than try and watch her help a man feel like a “man” again. The girl has better things to do with her time, like save the dying island of her people and additionally, the universe.

Arrival does a squeak better by attributing to its heroine a collection of superior intellectual powers that help decipher an alien language. Rarely are women the focus of Sci-Fi movies, and here we see a talented Amy Adams act her face off in this leading role as Louise Banks. However, the film falls apart at the end with the imminent threat of death towards Louise by the US military. Only when her male colleague intervenes on her behalf does she have the opportunity to follow through with her plan to save the world. Her agency is reduced by the dependency on a man to advocate for her in a man’s world. Why did the US army listen to the male colleague when he asked for extra time, but for some reason the US army interpreted the woman’s plea as suspicion and high treason? As if her pleas have to be doubted, as if her opinion alone isn’t enough and valid in itself to elicit just 1 minute more of phone conversation. Perhaps I’m a bit sore from the elections in which America refused to trust and believe a frankly overqualified female presidential candidate. Sigh. Nevertheless, another issue with this character is that her power although stemming from her academic accomplishments, is overshadowed and muddled as she begins to see the future. Her brain unexpectedly and impressively changes as it learns the new alien language. Yet this idea of “seeing” the future or having an “extra sense” is a painful and tiring echo of the age-old idea of woman’s intuition or its medieval incarnation the “old-wives tales.” Why is her character’s final and weighty moment based on “intuition” or a supernatural power and not logical fact based reasoning that is so typically characterized as a male trait? This heroine of ours reinforces the script of woman somehow being more emotional than reasonable and somehow capable of some sort of “insight” that men with their testosterone and just brains can never achieve.

And finally we have Finding Dory, a heartfelt story of finding your parents and rediscovering your roots, hammering home the idea of women somehow being crazy and unpredictable and straight up loopy, but still lovable in the end. (How many times have you heard men describe their wives as this…fundamentally crazy, but they still love them…what kind of respect is that?) I have known no women of such an order in my life. Most of the women in my life have multiple degrees and in fact it is the men who have limited education and don’t usually operate in an analytic frame of mind. Although Dory is a cute laughable character, the fact that her silliness is juxtaposed with Marlin’s level-headiness reiterates the idea that women easily fly off the handle and move solely based on “instinct” or “intuition.” Dory never once stops to process the world around her but is relentlessly moving through based on what she feels, not what she thinks. Having another female character that once again “follows her heart” and has no intention to contemplate her future with intentionality, gives another kick to the status-quo that would have us think women are fundamentally emotional, irrational, and experience random sparks of divine lucidity, and act as modern day “oracles of Delphi” with sporadic moments of raptures that also cook and clean.

First and second wave Feminism moved on the idea that female qualities were wonderful and useful and valuable in their own right. Women are enough as they are and should not be relegated to the margins of society, designated as inferior creatures. Feminists believed they should celebrate feminine qualities, and deconstruct the myth that female traits are “soft” but rather prove that with the right opportunity the female energy was powerful and a great agent of change in society. Whole cities have been planned as “female cities” with the idea that when women are empowered, the entire city itself is better and everyone benefits. The female energy and all of her strengths is a beautiful spiritual inheritance that is often forgotten in the world of male dominated religions. I for one often find myself exercising these traits everyday, listening, connecting emotionally, and believing in the power of love and kindness to change lives. If anything, I want more people to live with these values, both women and men. Yet, why can’t we move on from over-simplified images of women? Why did Moana have to spend half of her movie acting as emotional coach? Why did Louise need a man’s intervention in order to be taken seriously at all? Why can’t Dory have been silly but eventually also learned that it takes balance in life to unlock all that this world has to offer?

Too many times in my life I have seen women presented as irrational, emotional side-kicks, and air-headed to let these tropes slide as undetected. If I had a nickel for every time a female intellectual was dismissed because her research was not considered serious, or when a woman was approached in the work place for emotional encouragement (that clearly was not in their job description), or painted as some witch-doctor, I would have no need to work. Because most of my inspiration comes from strong women, I take it as a personal insult when women are not afforded the same 3-D characters that men are, especially when it’s mostly from women that I have learned what is means to be a human that is not only a strong leader bold enough to make hard choices, but also is rational enough to think life through while still hanging on to the conviction that kindness and courage can indeed go hand in hand, and when they do, they change the world.

 

Speaking in Tongues: Americana, PCing, and the Grammar of Power

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Although it may seem that both major American political parties were speaking in English during the 2016 Presidential US elections, I would actually beg to differ. Of course on a purely superficial level, the funny language that used to be a dialect of German but was transformed into something else through French linguistic influence, English, was spoken indeed on stages throughout the United States. However, what was being understood was anything but English. In fact it was this exact phenomenon that helped one candidate hold the attention of rural America while another candidate’s language held her crowds in suspense as they savored every word of hers, imagining the beginning of a new exuberant chapter in American politics, and even world history.

Many a scholar has analyzed how language has been used to portray a world region and how this depiction has thrust upon a people and place ideas and identities that are far removed from the reality that they are supposedly meant to represent. Edward Said in “Orientalism” expresses how Europe and later America, conjured up images of a “mystical and enchanted” Middle East, which justified reasonable-science-loving Europeans to “subdue” the Orient and consequently make it their colony. Maria Todorova in “Imagining the Balkans” showed how the Balkans underwent a similar treatment, which has resulted in misled and damaging policies towards the region, which have only made tensions worst. And finally I did it in a fun essay on how international media coverage on Central America distorts events and politics on the Isthmus, leading to dangerous interventions that only make matters worst (it was doozy, but a good one, simply email if you are so inclined to read it and learn more =D),

Words are not just words. Like anything else, they too can be weaponized to deliver, take, and solidify power.

An interesting adventure was embarked on by the CNN commentator Van Jones. He decided that he would go to rural Pennsylvania and interview Donald Trump supporters. I love the choice of good old PA. One of the original colonies, so you know as a native of Massachusetts, we go way back!! Pennsylvania has its urban centers with multicultural lifestyles abounding, but it still has deeply conservative homogenous clusters of citizens that inhabit its rural geography. It is an interesting state and a temperate place for a black man who is a Clinton supporter to show up.

As he sat down with Trump supporters in this 3 part series, he was able to engage with and not just talk at a young white man who was a Trump supporter. This is the first part of actually speaking the same language. If someone perceives that you are talking at them instead of with them, they will immediately put on blinds and distort your words through a lens known as “please hurry up so that I can talk and stop hearing your voice.” This lens steals your voice and replaces your sentences with prejudices and assumptions of what the “other side” typically thinks. It’s a lens that replaces your words, nuances, and arguments with a pre-manufactured vocabulary, creating a whole new alphabet that you unexpectedly find yourself speaking. As the young white man started to unload his Trump arguments, we should start to realize that he is not speaking English anymore, his voice is gone, and a political ideology with its own grammar and idioms has emerged. As Hannah Arendt said in the “Banality of Evil” evil is not a monster but a passive choice to let wrong happen, shutting down the brain and losing all intellectual responsibility and agency to think otherwise ( paraphrasing). Evil is not glamorous or loud, in fact it is often quiet, silent, and passive, but always deadly.

This passionate white man pointed to his concerns about poverty and the injustices suffered by the African-American community, a noble issue for sure. However let us look at the language that he used to describe Black America. In fact through his language he was actually reifying patterns of oppression, despite wanting to actually cross over and help. He is quoted with saying that “African Americans are treated so badly in the inner city.” Pause. Here we already see that he has opted for an interesting designation for black citizens in America, by using the word African-American. (To be honest, in my experience, many folks prefer the term Black over African American. Many a time I have actually been applauded for saying black, it has been pointed out as the first step to actually helping. If someone is black, I’ve been told that it is best to acknowledge it and unpack the history and politics that accompany their reality). And, if we’re honest, have you noticed that sometimes many a white person swallows painfully when saying “black” as if saying it were some bad word. This self-consciousness that white people experience when saying “black” is already evidence that there is tension when the word is spoken. Perhaps it conjures images of the civil rights movement and the pain those activists experienced while being hosed by police? Perhaps it is too raw of a word that is intimately tied to slavery, which exclusively oppressed people who were black. By choosing to side step this charged history and not saying black, some might argue that he has inadvertently dismissed the challenges experienced by Black America everyday.

But we must not stagnate, and let’s take a look at his next phrase “treated so badly in the inner city.” When Feminists want to show patterns of gender oppression in language they usually refer to a simple example. It goes something like this: 1)John beats Mary 2) Mary is beaten by John 3) Mary is beaten. As the sentence devolves, John is completely taken out of the picture. All of a sudden Mary shows up beaten. She alone is associated with her suffering and her perpetrator is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly she, the victim, is seen as aligned with the violence done against her and we identity her exclusively with this incident. This is dangerous as it thrusts an unexpected burden on Mary and we start to ask…Why didn’t she leave? Run? Hide? Struggle? It is easy to then think that…Mary is beaten…tsk tsk tsk…bad Mary…obviously she did not act as she was supposed to…one might be tempted to then think…this is what happens when women make poor choices and are dumb enough to put themselves in dangerous situations. And so it goes with “African-Americans” in the “inner city” who are “treated so badly.” Who is treating them “so badly?” What does “badly” mean? Do cops take away their candy? That’s “bad.” Do cops arrest them at higher rates than whites, because I would also classify that as “bad.” But all that we are left with is the understanding that African Americans are “treated badly,” which deletes the actual persons carrying out the violence and abuse against them, and leaves the black man to defend himself. Moreover, this simplified phrase can mean anything from they are told that they can’t park on the right side of the street to they walk terrorized because of the police intimidation in their own neighborhoods. It behooves speakers of certain social groups to use ambiguous language so as to sanitize reality, and dismiss what is actually happening by using belittling language that trivializes the black experience.

But finally it is the last part of the phrase that perhaps is the most revealing of this man’s political grammar, we see how his imagination works and how he classifies the people around him. When he said “in the inner city,” he seems to assume that African Americans (his words) somehow only exist in the “inner city.” Moreover what does the “inner-city” mean? Beacon Hill Boston looks amazing from what I know. The Upper East Side in Manhattan is obviously “in the city” but is that what he means? No, he is conjuring up images of “projects” and “ghettos” which are the images that his psyche keeps as static ideas of Black America. This in when we transition from English to speaking Americana. Here our friend has mobilized the register of images available to him and his American psyche and imagination. The pictures he grew up with were of Black communities portrayed almost exclusively in the city. He is referencing the popular images he was raised with instead of keep in mind the colorful and complex community that Black America has created, he has settled for the social shortcut of a simplified version of black citizens in the United States. Consequently, as he mentally keeps all African Americans in the inner city he is permanently marrying them to poverty and crime. If we’re honest “inner city” is usually code for the above mentioned adjectives. It is this underlying array of images that he is working with and thus limits his understanding of race in this country, keeping down those he seeks to lift-up. I could keep going with phrase after phrase but I might just end up typing my fingers off!

If you add this Americana to widespread gender bias, it becomes easy to see that when Clinton spoke of tax reform and increases on taxes on the rich to help the middle class, what rural white America actually heard was…”I will implement a communist system that will choke business and drain them dry. Then we will tell you what you can buy with the government’s money and review your receipts from the grocery store to make sure you are following the law.” No wonder people were at a lost during this election, no one was speaking the same language. And in many ways well meaning everyday Americans will unknowingly engage and reinforce prejudices simply through their grammar, that although might no necessarily align with what they want to say and do, actually aligns itself with powerful forces that seek to harm others.

I encourage you to watch Van Jones’ interaction with this young man and see him confront what is underneath the speeches this Trump supporter is delivering. There is more than meets the eye with this young white man. And that is the tragedy with all of this. Those who lose the most are those who think they are gaining the most. As Trump supporters hurl sound bites of Trump, they lose their own sense of self and instead of expressing their desire for an improved society for all, they are lost in the hurtful rhetoric of Trump. Van Jones gets to the core of what this person actually feels, but unfortunately, echoing the words of a widely regarded bigot may not be the best way to start a conversation if your goal is to work together. The first step to joining hands is at least to speak the same language.

In Genesis when God wanted to stop the construction of the tower of Babel he simply confused the languages so that people could no longer communicate. Shall we one day overcome our own modern political tower of Babel? Or helplessly talk in tongues and speak within the limited idioms of our racial socio-economic milieus until there is nothing left to say?

I encourage you all to try this exercise. Listen to yourself talk and ask what grammar are you using? What images are you referencing when you talk? Are these images accurate? Where do they come from? And are they true representations of reality or are they representing someone else’s vision of society and their attempt to control and assert power.

Words are not just words. Like anything else, they too can be weaponized.

 

Bursting the Wrong Bubble: Calling Out White Rural America’s Self-Imposed Isolation and Self-Chosen Withdrawal

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No one is tougher on the Latino community than me. Growing up, I was often asked by parents what advice I had for their kids. Seeing that I was headed to Columbia Univeristy, had racked up awards through my High School years, had won school elections, and was a highly visible and valued member of the church community, parents indeed were intrigued by how 2 random immigrants from the backwaters of Honduras were able to suddenly send off two kids to college avoiding the dreaded narrative of the typical “inner-city kid.” My response to their pleas was, “study, get to work, and own your future.” I never made my success sound like some sort of secret, I never implied I had something no one else had, I never promised magic potions or elixirs, and I never promised a 3-step program that guaranteed a perfect future. I always pointed to my hard academic work, sleep-less nights, determination to avoid stereotypes, and a healthy no nonsense attitude. Many would point out that my obsession with nerdy topics outside of school gave me an edge; sure I was obsessed with PBS documentaries, read a lopsided amount of historical fiction and biographies, and volunteered at an Immigrants Rights Advocacy agency, but these were things anyone could do. PBS is a free TV station, the Boston Public Library lends books out for free, and volunteering takes time, but when you’re a broke adolescent, what else do you really have? Yes, my outside interests might have conditioned my mind with a certain acumen, but I was not born this way and I simply took advantage of free resources. Again, did I say free? Yes, it was all free folks!

My story is not unique. Millions of underprivileged children make it and go way beyond anything I have accomplished.

However, it seems that in light of the recent US presidential election results, the new narrative popping up everywhere is that liberals live in a bubble and that white rural masses have somehow been severed off from the rest of the nation. As if there were some grand conspiracy between the Coasts to get married and kick-out rural America out of bed. They seem to suggest that somehow the digital revolution missed “Middle America” and that they are indeed an isolated nation within a nation. This argument seems to suggest that for some reason, white rural masses no longer engage with the rest of the world despite, 100’s of TV channels, Google, YouTube, Netflix, endless apps, and Thai restaurants that even the whitest of suburbs seem to have. It is a funny tale this one. Describing the Mid/Far West as vast swaths of empty desolate lands with absolutely nothing in between Los Angeles and Washington D.C. As if all those years of frontier settling, slaughtering Indians, and destroying the environment were in vain and nothing was ever established. Sigh.

This narrative of Middle America somehow being static and tragically “left-behind” is an insult mostly to “rural” Americans and all that they have built. First of all, there is nothing rural about Chicago, Salt Lake City, Madison, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, or Austin. There is nothing backwards about Cleveland, and the proud skyscrapers of Raleigh, North Carolina. This tale erroneously paints non-coastal USA as a void, empty of any activity. This simply is not true and no one was “left behind” in these states. They too have universities, they too have schools, they too have museums, they too have cars that run on gas and can make left turns that will guide them to their nearest metropolitan area. Furthermore, they too are swimming in the social media revolution and are wading in Internet Fios cables like everyone else. After all, how else would Alt-Right movements talk with other Alt-Right movements around the world, coordinate, and share best practices? Now more than ever right wing movements around the world are intimately tied and bonded. These are not communities in isolation and they do not live in Neanderthal conditions. There is nothing backwards about “Middle America” only old prejudices.

Still, the damage of this narrative is not limited to “Middle America” for it blames the victims of centuries of White racism for rural America’s isolation. The story blames everyone else but whites for their own state. Many a comment has said “but there is no diversity in my suburb, how am I supposed to know what a black person is really like? That’s not my fault!” Well I retort back, what do you expect? Blacks to go to the suburbs? When their grandparents were specifically prohibited from settling in the suburbs through the racist implementation of the GI bill that barred black families from settling in your cookie-cutter suburbs and forced them to inhabit the worst of the neighborhoods? Who’s fault was that?

I think it is ultimately necessary to call out the hidden double standard in this seemingly self-humbling self-effacing “Bubble”narrative. If a black student ever said, there is no way I can make it to college, my family is too poor, I do not have the proper networks and I have no support, many white conservatives would yell back, you just need to work harder! If a Latino were to use his predominately homogenous Spanish Harlem neighborhood as an excuse for why he simply couldn’t focus in the classroom and trust his white teacher, and blamed her for his poor academic performance, despite the fact that he never bothered to even look at the board and away from his phone, we would all cry foul and ask him to take responsibility. So why not hold white rural citizens to the same standard? If blacks are expected to rise despite all the challenges setup for them and interact productively and respectfully with white America, why can’t rural whites be expected to overcome their own, even if non-existent, challenges of “distance?” And do the same? Anyone can look-up a documentary on race for free, anyone can check out a book on MLK from their library, and anyone can turn on BET for goodness sake and at least realize that there are dozens of variations on American culture.

But the worst blow comes from lines like “I’ve never met a black person, or a career woman, or a Muslim! Or “I’ve never met a gay person before, they don’ exist where I come from!” or “I can’t afford a trip to the city to experience diversity!” Come on folks, who developed hostile communities that shunned “others?” And who married themselves to strict free-market policies that slashed local and state social services and safety nets? White rural America has no one to blame for it’s racism but itself. And the fact that the suburbs and rural counties of America continue to use this narrative as a defense is really a sad mask for their love affair with racism. And what is even sadder is the liberals who agree and feed into this delusion (for this also mistakenly (but conveniently) paints places like the Coasts as racial paradises; they are indeed far from it). Whether you like it or not all of America has the tools to overcome their racism on their own. If a brown Latino can Google how to conjugate German verbs, Google how to solve Calculus problems, watch documentaries on social racial experiments, research gender-theories, and keep his thumb on the Pop scenes of over 6 world regions, what excuse do you have? All you need in this day and age for a business is a phone and an Internet connection. I believe the same goes for racism, only this time all you really need is a TV; tune into PBS and watch. That’s it. You don’t even have to move. You can even sip your Pumpkin Spice latte and snuggle in your favorite pair of Uggs while watching (and yes I’ll be covering this lovely demographic in future blog posts…stay tuned ;)But the first step is realizing, OK, maybe there is a bigger world out there. Yes family is important, but I live in a nation, and this is my community. When a part of the community is hurting or is threatened we all are hurt and we all come under threat. Just like George Washington defended the rights of Jews to worship in Rhode Island, so you also have the charge to watch for the safety of your fellow Americans no matter what color or religion (and incidentally not vote for those who seek to harm them.)

The British have been defeated. The Civil War is over. You are not from Virginia, you are from America. You are not from Massachusetts, you are from America. You are not from Alabama, you are from the United States. When we let go of antiquated backward beliefs amazing things like Women’s Voting Rights can happen and the Civil Rights Act can be passed. When we don’t, well, let’s just say someone like Hilary Clinton loses. When you ignore and hold half the country in contempt because they don’t look like you, you have no right to demand any attention from them or even expect them to trust you; you have willingly broken off conversation with absolute truths that have no maneuvering space for the negotiation of world-views. When you have cast off everyone into the cold because they do not meet your criteria of socially acceptable people, you realize that in fact, you are alone.

White rural America’s isolation is no one’s fault but their own. They drove everyone into a bubble and in turn created their own fenced up alternative reality. They created alternative school curriculums that shun new scientific discoveries and deny the importance of key social movements that changed society’s fabric, they clung to a Cold-War Feminine-Mystique bathed static Christianity (don’t be misguided by the smoke machines and plaid-studded members ), and they reinforced racial purity through “white flight” to the suburbs. And now they want to blame those they hurt for “not talking to them” and “forgetting them.” No. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot send us away and then cry wolf when all of a sudden we are supposedly “too far.”

So turn off the Fox News, and watch Brandy’s Zoe Ever After, it’s charming, hilarious, and diverse. Stop scrolling through Tim Tebow’s Instagram and scroll through PBS’s FREE documentary series. Small steps make a big a difference. After all, how does an “inner-city kid” rise to the heights of working for UNIDO at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna? Walk away from the double standard, and look inside, now look at the mirror, and realize the work you have to do. But fret not, because this is America, and if it’s one thing we are not afraid of, it’s a little hard work. How else was the Golden Gate Bridge Built? The Statue of Liberty? Mount Rushmore?

Rome was not build in a day, but let us preserve what we have worked so hard for and try and make Rome a place where we can all be proud of our citizenship and walk in freedom. Leave the prejudices of the old world behind. This is the new world after all, and anything is possible.

It is a Cold War, and you better know what you’re fighting for, and indeed there is so much at stake. Arm yourself with knowledge and a warm open heart folks, it might just get chilly in here.

 

 

Her Legs Run Red: How the Feminine Mystique held America Hostage and Transformed a Monster into a Savior, Suffocating a Woman’s Right to Reach for the Presidency

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Once upon a time in America, women stayed at home and watched their husbands go to work. They would send off their children to school and then spend the rest of their days cleaning, washing clothes, cooking, dusting, and running to the grocery store. Once the afternoon sun started to set, the children would arrive home, followed by husbands who were tired of the outside world and looked forward to the comforts of home. No one questioned this model of life and many believed that they had indeed found the recipe for making the ideal society.

However, one bold woman, Betty Friedan, dared to ask, is this enough? After extensive research, polls, interviews, and writing, she came to the conclusion that, no it was not. But then her next question was, then why do we buy it? Why have women all over America willingly married so young, or forsaken careers after completing higher education? What made them throw away their potential? What promise hovered in the distance, which like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, persuaded and seduced women to reject any notion of life defined by anything other than their children and husband?

Betty Friedan gave a powerful answer to this phenomenon. The poison: The Feminine Mystique. I know what you are thinking; this is totally useless in the aftermath of the recent election. What does 2nd wave feminism of the 60’s have anything to do with dissatisfied white rural jobless men in the 21st century? The connection is not obvious but is stronger than you think. One of the most interesting points brought up by one media speaker was the fact that the voters cut Trump so much slack despite his many flaws and the horrible actions he committed. The list is endless so I won’t bore you with all of his sins. However, although it was obvious Trump was no angel, his voters seemed to defend him even more with each new scandal. It was later retorted that Trump supports let his past discretions slide because he was not in office when he committed them, but Hilary was when her server was discovered. But I hardly think that had Clinton also committed the same mistakes as Trump, America would have forgiven her and cheered for her anyway. If only, if only….sigh. This would then lead any supporter of Hillary to ask themselves, why then was our candidate, relentlessly berated for the same scandal over and over again.

Although there will be answers galore, no other American political treatise answers this question better than Friedan’s. I know, you are all thinking, Ramon, this has nothing to do with a vagina…she simply was not the best candidate to run and her loss reflects her inherent weakness as a candidate. To that I say no. It might sound smarter to use political language to describe a political outcome, but the fact is this has nothing to do with politics, in essence, the issues were non-starters. In fact many people voted for Trump DESPITE his policies. Hillary Clinton could talk until she was blue in the face about all the amazing work she had done, continues to do, and promises to do. In fact this is pretty much all she did during the debates. And even with this immersion of her strengths, rural white masses were not swayed. No. This was an issue of gender and sex.

Her sex was female. Her crime, being born in the wrong body.

Although ancient cultures revered women for their ability to give birth and in fact saw giving birth as a supernatural moment that was proof that women were connected to the divine and had powers beyond man’s grasps, our modern world has not followed the same patterns of thought. The sick combination of Freudian psychoanalysis, greed of advertisement dollars, desire to command a continuous spending consumer base, and carve out success for unemployed men regardless of the costs, have laid the foundation for how women were to be seen and treated in America.

The feminine mystique at its worst not only de-humanizes women and strips them naked of any identity other then mother and sexual object of the husband, but also dictates the public’s perception of women’s bodies. It destroys the idea that women are people and says no, in fact, they are maids with better lipstick and the ability to breastfeed their own offspring. The feminine mystique guides us to see women as things that should be in the kitchen, at home, or at church. Woman is a passive receiver of sex, and thus her true nature is to receive and follow, she is second to man, because she is naturally fit to serve, and thus logically she is not fit to lead, make thoughtful choices, or to be trusted with important decisions; she simply does not have the same mental capacity as man. The mystique however needs outsiders in order to prove its necessity. These outsiders are labeled “career-women” and they are vilified. Forced to feel guilty for not being home, and accused of not being true women if they can live with the idea of not devoting their lives only to their children and husbands. This demonization has stuck with American society decades after it was introduced and still haunts our world.

It did not matter that Obama had done so much work, it did not matter that he had won swing states before, it did not matter that he endorsed Hillary. None of it mattered. Why? Because she was a woman. Hillary Clinton was the victim of years of psychological conditioning that both women and men have been subject to, leading to biases against her that prevented her from ever having a true voice, instead, the prejudices deafened rural white voters to her melody of merits. And so HRC was vilified seen as untrustworthy not because she had done a series of actions that had led to a laundry list of social-ills, something her opponent was able to simply brush off. No, she was deemed untrustworthy from the start. Even before the email scandal. It was said that Hilary was already being seen as cold, distant, and unrelatable (at least to those who still drank the decades-old elixir of the feminine mystique). All adjectives used to describe career women of the past in order to prove that a woman could only be happy if she was married and with children were employed again to mutilate Hillary. Because remember, all other paths only led to loneliness, bitterness, and resentment. Women working outside of the home merited suspicion, and Hilary Clinton was no exception.

Although I could go on and on and write until my fingers fall off, I will end it here. Why re-invent the wheel when Friedan herself already did? Some might say that HRC was DOA. Some might say she didn’t work hard enough. But no internet meme has summarized Hillary’s plight better. A person, who worked 4 times as hard, with volumes of experience, had done everything to a T, still lost to a man whose campaign was a series of blunders, diatribes, loud uncomfortable noises, grunts, and serious nasal issues. No Hillary, this is not on you. This is on the men and their wives who both said she could not be trusted. Who refused to see her as anything as vile, scheming and a closeted witch. Slurs hurled at her today are no different from those hurled at suffragettes, the detractors are not original, they are just sadder versions of their past ancestors. Betty Friedan ends a chapter in her monumental work with the idea that no matter how much society is pegged against women, at the end of the day, it is all about choice. Betty chose to walk away from the carved out role America had given her. She had no idea what laid on the other side of being a glamorous live-in maid, but she took the risk and found a better more fulfilling life. These rural white women still had a choice to look beyond the mystique and see Clinton for who she was, what she had accomplished, and what she had to say. But that simply did not happen, and one woman alone cannot drain the poison that has warped reality for so many. And the women who chose to marry themselves to the mystique and trust it to fulfill all their hopes and dreams have drunk the Kool-Aid and have played to the letter the sad song of woman who are anti-woman and regard ambitious women living outside of the mystique with mistrust, cynicism, and often times closeted envy.

Some might say that Feminism is a done deal, gender equality has been achieved. I say Feminism has more work to do. Feminism was supposed to have cleared the way for Clinton. Feminism was supposed to have told these white men NO, women can work and be warm, loving, and trustworthy. It was supposed to tell white rural women, NO, career is not a bad dirty word and, no, having a life outside of the home does not make you selfish, a traitor to your “true nature,” or a social outcast.

Hillary’s loss is a sign that America is nowhere close to where some youngsters think America is. It would behoove them to learn from the Feminists of before and realize that theirs was not a closed chapter, but an open-ended story that needs to be completed. I hope that this new generation can pick up the mantle and add to its current agenda of anti-catcalling anti-rape culture efforts the idea of restoring personhood to everyone regardless of sex, that they would push for the idea that women can do what men do just as well, that women like men are entitled to grow and should NOT be chastised, punished, or condemned for it. We are all entitled to pursue that most human impulse and instinct to grow and inspire, and vagina or not, it is everyone’s God given right, and no one, no one, has the right to stand in anyone’s way. I hope the words of this anthem become a reality someday and not just lyrics.

 

P.S

I did not include much about Clinton’s email on purpose. Here’s why. It has been overblown, mystified, and transformed into a monster that it is not. As someone who has worked in corporate America, small non-profits, and World organizations, I can tell you that using a private server is a rather innocuous thing an employee in this scenario could do. Most business at the highest levels (believe it or not) is actually done over Whatsapp on personal phones. Most colleagues I know use work email for personal affairs and vice versa. And finally, in some professional scenarios, certain security measures are circumnavigated all together because of how long it takes to work through these channels. A private secure server was a quick easy solution to a problem that required speed and security. Did she go against protocol? Yes. But so have millions of other officials in government and around the world when they conduct business over SMS. She at least had the decency to use a secured server, that was known about, and was previously a part of the White House security systems (it had been secured and used during Bill’s tenure). But how convenient to ridicule a woman’s drive for efficiency and professionalism and turn it into a moment of weakness, idiocy, and secrecy, the perfect opportunity to enforce biases against “career women” and mobilize the sexist images cemented in rural America’s unconscious. How readily available was the grammar that led to the sensationalization of this incident and fed right into the trap laid out by the Feminine Mystique.

Women of My World: Divas, Latinas, Fighters, and Huggers

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“Abuelita is a rebel, my mother’s a fighter, Tia is a G, and my sister’s a rider,” Pitbull could not have put it any better than when he penned these lyrics for his collaboration with Jay Sean in “I’m All Yours.” Not one to support misogyny when it comes to pop music, I think Pitbull surprisingly hits it right on the money with these lyrics. Although I have discovered new divas and ever more women that inspire me, it is these 4 women in my family that were my original muses. From my sister’s passion for sports and music, my mother’s ceaseless attention to her studies, my aunt’s always fabulous eye for color and style, and to my grandmother’s fight for independence, progress, and the perfect waistline, I had a treasure trove of female models that not only embodied great values, but also exemplified the power that the human spirit encapsulated.

My grandmother was one of the first women to start the trend of mothers working in the the U.S to support families in Latin America. She did this already in the mid 70’s, decades before it would become the modus operandi for hundreds of families in Central America. She wanted a better life for her family and wanted new opportunities for her children. After having the privilege of having many afternoon conversations with my Abuelita, I realized how important it was to her for her children to come to the U.S. She knew that they would do much better than they could ever do in Honduras. She wanted to give them unique chances, and she felt it was her duty as a mother to make this dream a reality. And after decades of filing paper work, paying immigration lawyers, and endless correspondence with the INS, she finally fulfilled her dream. She single handily left Honduras on her own, worked incredibly hard, and one one by one sponsored her children  to come make a new life in the U.S. She worked endlessly full-time jobs until she was 74 (and stopped only because she was in a terrible accident) to provide for her family and to stay financially independent, something she fiercely believed in and valued. She broke many traditions, and social conventions to get to where she is, but her adventurous spirit is what got my family to where it is today and me all the way to Vienna, Austria (again!) I am always reminded of just how much this woman did with so little, and how with just her belief in herself she was able to change the lives of her entire family.

Of course, I literally would not be here without my mother. I always laugh whenever I hear that men somehow don’t believe women are capable of being productive dedicated intellectuals. That somehow women spend all their days gossiping and socializing and devoid of any ability to take anything seriously. My mother was the exact opposite. She got her associates, bachelors, and masters degree in the U.S. She studied long hours, went to classes, argued with professors, conducted research, and walked the stage 3 times. No one was a better example of how studious women could be and how alive they could feel when they succeeded in academics. But of course, what made this more impressive was that my mother was still raising 2 kids, and working a full-time job as well. She did it all and had it all. I remember looking up to her while growing up and wanting to be like her, always doing something, always starting a project; appearing on the news,  appearing in the newspaper, and even saying hi to fans in the local CVS (mini local-celebrity status? I think yes!) I only later realized how spoiled I was to have seen such a socially and intellectually active woman in my life. She forever left the imprint that women could take on the world and actually do it better than a man because women were assumed to be handling family life and personal matters on top of everything else. For a long time, I did not think another woman could match my mother. In my private school, most students came from upper-middle class families where mothers stayed at home. When I first heard these conversations, I almost thought it was a joke (after all, the mothers of my public school friends also worked during the day, and the only time you heard of mothers staying at home was on TV or in a movie, mediums that were almost always based on fictional stories). I could not help but laugh and look wide-eyed, as I initially heard about these women and eventually actually got to meet them in person. I had never heard of such a thing. A woman who didn’t work? Isn’t your mom at school or taking classes? Your mom is not working late because she is translating for the city manager? How is this possible? What do you mean she goes to a book club? What is that? As I grew up I learned more and more about the division of labor based on gender and understood that the home was where women were traditionally told to remain. I have since recovered from this rude awakening and have continued to support women’s education whenever possible. I am eternally grateful that my mom was a superstar and was committed to honoring her conviction that she needed to help her community by working on herself and leading better and larger social projects. This was a woman who embodied initiative, agency, and mobilization. Cleopatra, Maria Theresa, Joan of Arc, and Catherine the Great never seemed like exceptions to me because my mother was my normal. She was my standard for femininity, and what I experienced was a female energy that was unstoppable, untamable, and always ready to transform.

But this story would be incomplete without my sister, the coolest of all my female role models. I remember again one day laughing out loud when someone said, “all girls care about are boys, flowers, and chocolate.” I thought this was the funniest thing I had ever heard. The joke really became too much when they talked about girl’s obsession with make-up. I was like this is rich! Where do you come up with this stuff!? You see, growing up my sister was a tomboy. She played sports all the time, softball, basketball, football, lacrosse, you name it, she was there. And she loved it! She disliked wearing dresses and avoided wearing makeup like the plague (except of course for her trusty lip gloss). She (to this day) does not like chocolate and is not a fan of flowers (but she actually really likes plants, she is such a fan of green!) Moreover, she played the piano, guitar, and the drums. She was always looking for new music. For me, my normal was that a girl only played sports, for me it was normal for a girl to dislike getting dressed up, preferring comfy jeans, play instruments, and wear boy sneakers. In fact, I and my sister often shared shoes because she liked mine so much better! People often say that only sisters share clothes, not so in my house! She brilliantly broke down so many stereotypes of women, but so much that she often felt uncomfortable around other women who seemed to cling to these social roles for dear life. She was always fabulous even when playing basketball with her Nike Airs. She always shone so brightly singing and playing. However, she was still nurturing and caring even when telling me to hurry up after school, after all, we needed to get home quick for our favorite daytime soap “Passions!” She was a person that seamlessly walked between cool, cheesy, and fun. Today I now see that I was extremely spoiled to have grown up with a sister who was able to watch out for me with a thick skin, while still allowing me to be myself. She never mandated what I should do but only used to say, “well in my experience…” or “you should try this….” I never once felt like she talked down to me, but only always wanted to help me avoid mistakes, this compassion mixed with self-confidence was a truly unique energy that I love and hope to exhibit in my life. I am so grateful that she chose to never follow the crowds and simply stayed true to herself. She was and still is a shining beacon of light because she always loves others as much as she loves herself, and she learns more and more about grace every day, challenging herself to extend to it everyone and anyone, no matter what.

However, Ramon would not be Ramon without the addition  of one more special woman. The first diva to show me what a diva really is. My Tia. Tia is Spanish for “Aunt,” but in the Latin world, Tia’s are so much more than “Aunts.” Growing up, my Tia lived and breathed the beauty world. She was either teaching at a beauty school, working at a beauty salon, or owning a beauty salon. She always wore the best jewelry (silver of course) and  the coolest sunglasses you’ll ever find. I remember seeing her stilettos in her room and being in awe of how she could walk in them. I remember waking up on a Saturday morning and eating breakfast while hearing her climb up the stairs after a fun night out. I remember seeing her change the color of her hair, each time more fabulous than before. I remember all her CD’s of only the coolest singers of the time, Ashanti and Shakira were of course there. She was everything. But she also looked at me and my sister with care and compassion and used to take us school supply shopping, to the movies, and to parties; she knew we needed fun, and she was ready. She gave Joqui (my sister) all sorts of tips, and I learned so many essential life skills from her, for example; how to gel, the art of applying hairspray, and how to make sure your barber is using the right clippers. Although when I was younger I never quite felt comfortable in my own skin and beauty was only something that was sought on Sunday mornings for church, and only for church. I have since grown out of that mentality and believe that you can shine every morning and that everyday can be filled with your personal beauty. After all, I was born this way 😉 Her style, her looks, her compassion for us, her happiness in our achievements, and her ability to always look so fly and turn heads in a restaurant while walking in with a toddler in one hand, while holding a rhine-stone studded flip-phone in the other are images and moments I will never forget. Many people might underestimate the power of style and fashion. They may see it as frivolous and unnecessary. But my Tia’s style was effortless, that’s what made it so magical. She could get ready in 10 minutes. She like my sister, are the fastest people I have ever seen go from drab to fab! And it this specific style that is so important. The idea that you should love who you are and have a wardrobe (or ideally a full life) that flatters and honors your scared light. Working to highlight the beauty that you already have, looking for colors and shapes that best work for you. The intimate knowledge of who you are and the secret ability to accentuate that, effortlessly slipping something on, radiating like the sun. This, my friends, is no easy task, and it was her bright eyes that always said, yup, this is me, love it or love it, cause it’s as beautiful as it looks!

I have since come into my  own person, and although I do have a separate approach to my life and my own bag of tricks, I know that I had the best starter kit ever. The foundations that these women gave me were extremely instrumental in equipping me to spring forward through grade school and into college. They were the inspiration I remembered when times were difficult. They were the ones who reinvigorated my spirit, as I remembered that I share the same genes as they had, which means I had the same amount of  strength, intelligence, wisdom, drive, and spark to succeed like them. They gave me the power to launch lightyears ahead of where other males of my similar demographics could have ended up, and for that, I am eternally grateful. So thank you to these wonderful women, my first and best encounter with powerful women who are not afraid to go after what they want, but still no matter how high they may fly, stay grounded through their relationships with their close ones. They taught me the hidden power that lies in the unexpected and proved that no matter what anyone said and no matter what anyone thinks, when you stay true to yourself you tap into something sacred that is unstoppable. Thank you to these women who despite circumstances that presented endless challenges, still worked to overcome them, showed the fortitude of womanhood, and by extension revealed the strength that lies in my own being, giving me a fighter’s instinct that I’ll never put down or take for granted.

Nancy Ajram: A Sweet Smile that Still Packs a Punch

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I have to admit, that back in 2008, for a while like most Americans, I held pretty short-sighted ideas of the Middle East. I only had the biased images on TV and the slanted news coverage of American involvement overseas. I have always believed that women everywhere have so much to say and offer, and I knew that the 21st century Middle East was no exception. I always held out for that one day, when my small world would finally yield a window showing a true, more diverse, and unbiased picture of what women outside of  the Western cultural sphere look liked. And I finally found it.

In 2008 I randomly typed into the Youtube search bar, Arabic pop. I had always had a thing for Pop music around the world, starting of course with Latin Pop. This global sonic interest was quickly fed by the serendipitous discovery of the Eurovision Song Contest and the flood of international artists that were thereafter discovered. I so wanted to see what else was out there. What else could my ear learn to love? And so it was that I stumbled upon Lebanon’s most successful pop star, and one of the biggest celebrities of the entire Middle East, Nancy Ajram. She wowed me with her music video for “Mashy Haddy,” whose title is translated as “Walking By My Side.” It tells the story of a girl who has a boyfriend, but her man is constantly looking at other women, even when he is “walking by her side.” Her cute shoes. Her cute make up. Her obvious disappointment with her man’s behavior and her agency to do something about it, all mesmerized me. Of course this was a pop video and it was all done whimsically and her actions were all quite harmless and very innocent. But still to see so much female self-confidence oozing out in the Arabic language, was a first for my apparently culturally deprived American eyes and ears.

Still the video showed a self-possessed, confident woman, with great fashion sense, righteously annoyed by her male companion. I loved it. I honestly had never seen anything like it. Nancy Ajram somehow combined a sweet soft attitude was a strong confident approach towards those who could not respect her person. Her music video painted a strong woman who could be as sweet as she was cunning, and as beautiful as she was resourceful. She was balanced. Excited by all things Nancy at this point, I later went on to research the singer and learned that she was not only extremely well known in the Middle East, but was also married and had two daughters. She was already in her 30’s, had a massively successful career, and also had a stable family life! Again. I had never seen anything like it. In the American pop scene most big stars just don’t seem to have it all. Nancy Ajram did. Family, business, beauty, and a fun sweet, grounded personality that made for great concert footage and interviews. She opened my eyes not only to women in the Middle East but to also realize that the Arab world is full of so much diversity. Lebanon is not Afghanistan. And Jordan is not Iraq. All this was in 2008 and I was but a wee sophomore in high school, only 15 years old. So much has changed since then, and my Youtube history shows that my knowledge of the Arab pop world has matured impressively so. Still I cannot get over Nancy Ajram’s resemblance to other great Divas in History, which is what perhaps keeps me so enchanted with this pop star’s personality. Like Maria Theresa, she values both work and family. Like Cleopatra she is proud of her national origins and contributes to its defense, Nancy Ajram has also participated in Lebanese political commercials supporting the Lebanese army (as part of a group of several other Lebanese singers. Yes, Lebanon like the U.S has quite the list of pop divas as well!)

Yet, what most sticks out and what immediately fascinated me about Nancy is that she was so similar to my sister, Nancy (who goes by Joqui!) My sister is a tough cookie. She is a Dean of Students after all. But she loves her friends. She loves to love. And is as soft as she is ready to confront with grace whenever the situation calls for it. She approaches discipline with heart, understanding, and fairness. Similarly, Nancy Ajram has been known to walk off a show when she does not agree with the message that is being communicated and the program clashes with her values. She refused to keep filming the MBC’s The Voice Kids when a young girl who could not sing well was put on stage. She does not stand for the humiliation of others and will confront an injustice when she sees one. Nancy Ajram is also known, for her extensive work with UNICEF, and her charitable appearances to raise funds for children’s hospitals and institutions. She does not sit pretty all day, but uses her influence to support causes that matter and is militant in defending what she believes. The moment she left her “judge’s chair” was a tension filled time, where she refused to keep filming and asked to cut the program. She is a mother after all, and she probably saw one of her daughters in that small child that was being humiliated and laughed at by the other judges. Nancy did not stand for it.

But at the end of the day, Nancy remains sweet, grounded, and kind. Fans everywhere celebrate the “sweetness of Nancy” and take pride in her likability and efforts to stay gracious amid all the success. Nancy Ajram to me is a symbol of how great the female spirit simply is. Ranging from my Latina sister to this fabulous Lebanese pop start, the female energy lives and moves in ways that combines grace with power in an efficient, balanced, effective way. Cleopatra. Maria Theresa. Thalia. Aishwarya Rai. All women I look up to and love because they push themselves as people to be fulfilled in all areas of their lives. They are not just committed to theirs careers, but they took time to also invest in the entirety of their personhood. This to me is incredibly inspiring. I know that in my life I have had the privilege of often watching certain parts of my life do very well, but still not so often in conjunction with success in other parts of my life. I strive, aim, and work for the day that I can celebrate wholistic happiness and see all of my personality honored, loved, and cultivated. Whether in academic, personal, or professional achievements, we all have so much to give as people, why should we have to choose just one area to love and foster? These women haven’t and didn’t and that, in my view, makes them so incredibly powerful. To push yourself, and achieve happiness in a way that honors the entirety of who you are, not letting gender, race, or other bigoted ideas tell you what you can and cannot have (ignoring small minded ideas such as, “in order be a successful woman you cannot invest too much in your career, after all a woman’s place is really in the home.” Or, “to be a great pop star you have to stay single or else you won’t be thought of as sexy and lose your appeal! You must sacrifice your personal happiness for your professional success!) Nope not so. They make it work. They are who they are in all of their colors. No excuses. No apologies.

When I see women like Nancy Ajram living a full life that includes commitment to so many areas, I am inspired. I am inspired to know how far I can go with my life. I am inspired to see how many people I can learn to appreciate. I am inspired to unfurl. And I am inspired to love all of myself. Not just the brainy side that might please a certain crowd. Not just the funny side that pleases another crowd. No, it’s all there for a reason, and they are all a part of the wonderful constellation of values, ideas, loves, and passions that make you, you. So remember wonderful readers, shine so bright shine so right, at all times. All of who and what you are is purely beautiful.