Cillini: Infant Burial Practices in Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Inspired by my intense desire to hop a plane back to Ireland today, I decided to share this bit of scholarly work about a fascinating topic in the anthropology/archaeology of Ireland. I wrote this a few semesters ago and became fascinated by the topic of infant burial practices in Ireland. On my trip to the old sod in January, I managed to ask a few nice locals whether they knew about any cillini nearby–having read so much about this topic I was eager to visit one. The two older gentlemen I asked were aware of these sites but emphasized that cillini were a part of Ireland’s past–the sites they knew of had all been grown over by brush. One emphasized that all souls in Ireland were offered a “proper church burial” these days. I felt like one of these men was embarrassed that I had asked and didn’t press him further. However, I emphasize that this essay is about historical burial practices. If you want to find out about contemporary infant burials in Ireland, see Garattini (2007), cited below.


Infant Burial Practices in Ireland

Across Ireland, archaeological sites of human burial have been found inside of old abandoned churches, in prehistoric megalithic tombs or monuments, against boundary walls or ditches, on the shores of lakes or oceans, and on the north side of Catholic churchyards. These sites are colloquially called cillini, or children’s burial grounds, and have been identified through oral histories as the place where unbaptized infants have been put to rest. Common understandings of cillini emphasize the importance of Catholic doctrine about the afterlife to explain the proliferation of these sites across Ireland.

The heavy influence of the Catholic Church on culture and social life in Ireland forbids infants who die before receiving baptism from being buried in Catholic Church yards or traditional cemeteries. Catholic doctrine has changed over the years to approach this difficult subject. Originally, St. Augustine of Hippo stated that “the souls of unbaptized infants were condemned to hell because of their Original Sin” (Murphy 2011: p. 410). This ideology was especially harsh on the Irish culture, which placed such importance on Catholic doctrine about the afterlife. Parents who lost children before they could be baptized often felt a deep sense of personal shame and fear about the idea of their lost newborns perishing in Hell for eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval church changed St. Augustine’s strict doctrine by creating the concept of Limbo, which assured that while unbaptized infants would not be going to heaven, they would not suffer in hell for eternity either.

There is very little evidence that cillini were used before the 17th century in Ireland. Murphy (2011) writes that from 1966 to 2004, sixteen cillini sites in Ireland were excavated, and dating evidence proved that these sites demonstrated that they began to be used in the post-medieval period (p. 410). Therefore, cillini can be specifically tied to Catholic teachings. It is also worthy to note that in areas of Ireland where the Protestant Church of Ireland had many followers, cillini are less prominent. This is because the Protestant Church held less strict teachings about unbaptized infants, allowing for a “modified form of burial service for unbaptized infants of tender age, the offspring of Christian parents” (Murphy 2011: p. 411).

It is a commonly held opinion that while cillini were a reaction to Catholic doctrine, they also reflected the secretive and shameful nature of the loss of an infant in Irish culture. Finlay (2000) has written that the exclusionary nature of sites chosen for cillini reflects the “ambiguous category of the dead infant” and the “liminal state of the infant soul” (p. 408). Finlay (2000) writes of cillini: “Paradoxically, cillini are a visible, but yet concealed presence in the landscape. This ambivalent state between the known purpose and function of these sites…is mirrored in the frequently marginal and liminal locations in field corners, by roadsides as well as in abandoned monuments and disused buildings” (p. 419). Murphy (2011) argues against this hypothesis, claiming that connecting cillini with liminality and ambiguity is too simplistic of a conclusion that ignores the agency of grieving parents who used cillini to bury their unbaptized dead infants.

Murphy (2011) writes that the classic analysis of cillini as liminal and the conception of dead infants as marginal pieces of Irish family life ignores the presence of women and their lived experience of grief. Murphy (2011) writes that this popular notion reflects a “phallocentric nature of knowledge” that exists across the disciplines which very often ignores the experience of women (p. 411). Murphy challenges a simplistic reading of Irish infant burial practices that looks only to big institution like the Church for explanations of human behaviors and looks to the more complex patterns of behavior and emotion that were very real on an individual level for women and mothers. In her study of Irish oral tradition and folklore that describes aspects of women’s experiences with pregnancy and childbirth, Fionnuala Nic Suibhne (1992) states:

…even though there seems to have been an acceptance of the Church’s teaching…insofar as people believes the souls of unbaptized children went to Limbo, and insofar as they buried such children in unconsecrated ground, there often appears to have been a strongly felt respect and affection for unbaptized children in the account of many women. (p. 69)

Murphy urges readers to consider infant burial practices in Ireland as something that does not merely reflect the important influence of Church doctrine, but also as a practice that illuminates how Irish families interpreted and acted in response to that doctrine.

Murphy (2011) has recorded archeological evidence that points to cillini as sites for active remembrance of lost infants rather than simply liminal sites where the bodies of those infants went to be hidden and forgotten. Murphy (2011) is again arguing against Finlay (2000), who stated: “The simplicity and frequent absence of grave-markers serves to emphasize the anonymity of the infants and individuals interred within, turning the sites into passive memorials rather than places of active remembrance” (p. 419). Murphy cites numerous studies (Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997; Nolan 2006) that have connected material topographic features with infant burials. Physical features like small stone markers or physical demarcation of the graves of infants in Ireland show that parents or kin did make an effort to mark the site of burial of their infants.

Murphy (2011) also urged readers to recognize that most families in Ireland in the post-medieval era would not have been able to afford elaborate headstones or burial markers for any family members, let alone stillborn infants. She writes that wooden or iron crosses have been seen across Ireland as grave markers for individuals of any age and may have been used for infants who were buried outside of formal graveyards as well. These materials do not hold up in the archeological record as well as stone and may have been lost, moved, or stolen. Therefore, the absence of material culture at infant burial sites like a cillin does not necessarily prove the liminal nature of these individuals or their burials.

Murphy (2011) also notes that the discovery of white quartz in unconsecrated infant graves suggests a more complex understanding of cillini as sites for active mourning and familial remembrance. Archaeologists (Crombie 1990; Dennehy 1997) have noted that small pieces of white quartz (sometimes alongside smooth sea pebbles) were often recovered from enclosed infant graves or found in large quantities among larger cillini sites. Crombie (1997) notes that white quartz, seashells, and sea pebbles have been used for decorative purposes since prehistory (p. 27). Crombie (1997) suggests that, depending on the historical context, white quartz may have symbolized a merging of traditional Irish Celtic mythology and Catholicism. In both contexts, white symbolizes purity, and white quartz has specifically been used for purifying or healing purposes. Murphy (2011) argues that the use of white quartz on the burial sites of unbaptized infants could symbolize a desire to bring religious or spiritual meaning to the cillini.

Murphy (2011) challenges another myth that is often associated with cillini and their popular image as a secretive, marginal site for liminal individuals. It is often stated that the burial of unbaptized children took place secretly, at night, and was performed by the father or a male relative of the infant only. Family and kin (according to popular understandings of cillini) were not expected to attend the burial or to acknowledge or mourn the infant at all. Murphy (2011) writes that these practices may have been “reserved for the burial of an illegitimate child or an early miscarriage” and cites oral history of cillini which present evidence for public, daytime burials (p. 424).

The absence of women from the burial of their dead infants may have other explanatory factors. Murphy (2011) writes that their absence may simply be connected to general rituals and practices regarding childbirth at that time (p. 424). Women were generally expected to practice a “laying in” period after giving birth. Nic Suibhne (1992) writes that this period of confinement could last anywhere from 9 days to two weeks (p. 21).  In some areas, they could not leave the house until being “churched” or blessed, by a Priest. Murphy (2011) concludes that even following a live birth, a mother would often not be expected to attend her child’s baptism (p. 424). She also stresses that it should also be remembered that the ability to give birth was considered a sacred duty of a wife, so besides intense grief, a mother who had lost an infant would have felt a sense of shame and failure (Murphy 2011: p. 425).

Dennehy and Lynch (2001) also challenge some of the more simplistic anthropological understandings of cillini as merely “children’s burial grounds”. When conducting test excavations at an abandoned church site called Killalee, which was assumed to have no human remains (because the church did not have a formal cemetery), Dennehy and Lynch (2001) found twenty-three graves containing human remains. Of the four graves that were wholly analyzed, two infants of less than six months old were found. Upon this finding, Dennehy and Lynch (2001) assumed they had happened upon a cillin. However, when the next two skeletons were analyzed, they were found to be two adults: an adult female of undetermined age and a middle-aged adult of undetermined sex.

While a later analysis of the incomplete human remains showed that the site represented a bias toward burials of children, Dennehy and Lynch (2001) were puzzled by their finding of adult skeletons (p. 22). They also found many remains of older children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old. Dennehy and Lynch (2001) write, “The presence of older children and adults should not hinder the interpretation of this site as a cillin” (p.22). They emphasize that cillini, though named after the infants they so often contain, were very often used for other categories of people who were not deemed fit for a proper Catholic burial. Other archaeologists have recorded that suicides, strangers or foreigners, shipwrecked sailors, criminals, and murderers and their victims are also found in cillini across Ireland alongside unbaptized infants.

The adult female skeleton excavated at the Killalee site by Dennehy and Lynch (2001) was found buried with two coins and a porcelain bead. The authors write that the “inclusion of grave-goods went against Christian belief, with its particular abhorrence of the placement of coins in graves” (p. 23). The presence of these coins found under the hip of the skeleton implies that she was buried fully clothed. Dennehy and Lynch (2001) write that “criminals and victims of disease or suicide were not accorded traditional burial rites and were often buried fully clothed” (p. 23). By carefully analyzing the material culture existing at sites of unconsecrated burial, archaeologists are able to better analyze social and cultural context of mortuary practices. We see that cillini were not simply sites for the burial of unbaptized infants, but complex community sites where the religious, moral, and social significance of dead human bodies were interrogated and created.

Murphy’s (2011) arguments against a simple understanding of cillini as marginal sites for the secretive burial of marginalized individuals also speak to broader arguments about the conceptions of infants and children in history. McKerr, Murphy and Donnelly (2009) write that while in modern life, children are seen as the “primary focus of parental concerns,” there is a belief held by some that prior to the eighteenth century, parents did not value their children as individual people (p. 111). McKerr, Murphy, and Donnelly (2009) write that this “indifference hypothesis,” which supposes that the high mortality rates among children made emotional investment in one’s offspring undesirable, is largely connected to the work of Phillippe Aries in his book Centuries of Childhood (1973) (p.111).

Murphy (2011) notes that many anthropologists have taken issue with twentieth century historian’s views that parents in the past did not love their children as much as parents today and mourn them just as much when they died. She cites the work of Linda Pollock, (1983) who criticized earlier historians for their biased sources and publishes oral and written history accounts which show that “most parents were highly anxious and upset by the ill-health of a child—the high rate of infant mortality would appear to have only intensified this anxiety” (Murphy 2011: p. 414). Murphy cites the words of a mother writing in 1893 who, upon hearing that her friend had lost her young infant to scarlet fever, wrote “I think there must be no heartache like that of losing a child—for lover’s love, children’s love, husband’s love, and none of them so deep and high as mother’s love” (pg. 414). Murphy uses these sources to argue against the “indifference hypothesis” and argue that the parents of dead infants experienced grief, loss, and mourning, and would have used the cillini where their children were laid to rest as a site for remembrance and mourning.

Lally and Arden (2008) write that “few archaeologists have specifically considered how infant bodies were perceived and constituted in the past” and that this lack of inquiry about the concept of the infant body is based on a reliance “on the modern humanist biological model to explain social constitutions of the body…” (p. 65). Bodies are not only biological but are constructed at the intersection of the biological, social, and material world. These authors challenge simplistic readings of infant burial practices and urge archaeologists to consider the specific social and material meanings of infant internments.

Works Cited

Crawford, S. (2000). “Children, grave goods and social status in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Joanna Sofaer Derevenski (Eds.), Children and Material Culture (pp 169-179). London: Routledge.

Crombie, D. (1990). Children’s burial grounds in County Galway. Unpublished Master’s thesis, National University of Ireland, Galway.

Dennehy, E.A. (1997) The cellunaigh of County Kerry: an archaeological perspective. Unpublished Master’s thesis, University College Cork

Dennehy, E.A. and L. G. Lynch (2001). Unearthed secrets: a clandestine burial-ground. Archaeology Ireland, 15(4), 20-23.

Finlay, N. (2000). Outside of life: traditions of infant burial in Ireland from cillin to cist. World Archaeology. 31(3). 407-422.

Garattini, C. (2007). Creating memories: material culture and infantile death in contemporary Ireland. Mortality, 12(2), 193-206.

Hamlin, A., and C. Foley (1983). A women’s graveyard at Carrickmore, County Tyrone, and the separate burial of women. Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 46(1), 41-46.

Lally, M. and T. Arden (2008). Little artefacts: rethinking the constitution of the archaeological infant. Childhood in the Past, 1(1), 62-77

Mays, S. (2000). “The archaeology and history of infanticide, and its occurrence in earlier British populations” in Joanna Sofaer Derevenski (Eds.), Children and Material Culture (pp 180-190). London: Routledge.

McKerr, L., E. Murphy, and C. Donnelly (2009). I am not dead, but do sleep here: the representation of children in early modern burial grounds in Northern Ireland. Childhood in the Past, 2(1), 109-131.

Murphy, E.M. (2011). Children’s burial grounds in Ireland (cilliní) and parental emotions toward infant death.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 15(3), 409-428.

Mytum, H. (2006). Popular attitudes to memory, the body, and social identity: the rise of external commemoration in Britain, Ireland, and New England. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 40(1), 96-110.

Nolan, J. (2006). Excavation of a children’s burial ground in Tonybaum, Ballina, County Mayo. In O’Sullivan, J. and Stanley, M., (Eds.), Settlement, Industry, and Ritual, National Roads Authority, Dublin. 89 – 101

Turner, V.W. (1964). Betwixt and between: the liminal period in Rites de Passage. Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, 4-20.

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Federal judge upholds most of restrictive abortion law in Texas


The biggest news in abortion access this week comes from Texas, where parts of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation–part of the bill that the now legendary Wendy Davis filibustered against this summer–was blocked by a federal judge. This is good news for feminist activism, a social movement whose presence in Texas has been instrumental in bringing national attention to the restrictive laws in this state. However, it is important for supporters of abortion access to fully understand the content of this law and the ways in which this ruling is not fully a win.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision blocked an aspect of the law which required  admitting privileges for all physicians who perform abortions.  The judgement seems to be based off the precedent made by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which upheld the constitutional right to abortion under the Fourteenth amendment’s right to privacy, and the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, which established an undue burden clause, indicating that abortion restrictions which place an “undue burden” on those seeking abortion is unconstitutional.  Referencing today’s ruling in Texas, Judge Yeakel ruled that Texas’s law “places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her [emphasis mine.]“

Despite the block against the restriction targeting admitting privileges, other extremely harmful aspects of the abortion law in Texas will go into affect over the next week. This include a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks, (even those performed to protect the life and health of the uterus-owner) as well as a provision stating that after October 2014, all abortions must take place in “surgical facilities”. Judge Yeakel also did not block a provision which requires that medication abortions be prescribed according to FDA protocol– a restriction that sounds “sensible,” but actually limits the ability for qualified physicians to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

The Texas fight against abortion restriction is drawing national attention, and it is important for supporters of abortion access to realize this fight for what it is. This is the new battleground for abortion access– bills which seek to challenge PP v. Casey and the “undue burden” clause, bills which blatantly disregard the right to privacy established under Roe vs. Wade, and the growing constant need to push back against restrictive legislative measures rather than fighting forwards for economic justice, abortion funding, and healthcare for everyone.

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Breast cancer isn’t sexy, and telling women to “set their tatas free” isn’t going to cure it.

Brenna McCaffrey:

It’s October again– time to sigh loudly at all the pink branded products and the sexualization of breast cancer.

[A very well written blog by 'That Pesky Feminist" because "The Feminist Anthropologist" is overwhelmed with senior thesis work.]

Originally posted on That Pesky Feminist.:


According to this poster, October 13th is No Bra Day, supposedly an initiative to raise awareness of breast cancer (although it doesn’t actually say that; it says it’s in support of breast cancer. But, you know, we all make mistakes, right…). It runs with the tagline “Set the Tatas Free”, which is reminiscent of another breast cancer awareness organisation, Save The Tatas, although there appears to be no affiliation; No Bra Day is apparently lead by something called Boobstagram, a French site that encourages women to take photos of their breasts and upload them, also in the name of curing cancer, or something.

Aside from the fact that for many women, a day without a bra would be incredibly uncomfortable and potentially painful, I shall lay my cards on the table: I detest this kind of marketing. I am well aware that it is meant to be…

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What The Bible Really Says About “Illegal” Immigration

If you can take this:

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 19:22)

and turn it into this:



(while ignoring all the other laws in The Bible which tell you its okay to have multiple wives or marry twelve year olds as long as they are virgins and commands you not to touch a menstruating woman and not to wear cotton-polyester blends…)

then how does this:

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

and this:

“…And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow…” (Jeremiah 22:3)

and this:

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…” (Deuteronomy 24: 17)

and this:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for your were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

turn into this?


Judy Schulz, Richard Schulz


Filed under human rights, identity, politics, privilege, religion, social justice

Race and Reproductive Freedom in the Childfree Community

This is a direct response to Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville today about being childfree, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time in regards to mainstream feminist views about “reproductive choice”, the recent attention being paid to teen parent shaming, and re: the Reddit Childfree community.




Melissa McEwan’s article detailed her personal experiences as a “childfree” individual– someone who consciously chooses against being a parent for any number of personal, cultural, financial, environmental, or political reasons. Being “childfree” is not a new phenomenon, but those who identify as such are becoming more vocal, demanding an end to the endless questions about their reproductive choices, swapping tips for finding “childfree-friendly” doctors, and using feminist and reproductive justice rhetoric to articulate their identities and struggles. They are fighting for rights that students of second-wave feminism might recognize: the right to be sterilized on demand, without question, without waiting periods, and without needing a spouse’s permission; the right to define themselves as other than mother, father, or parent; and the right to absolute reproductive freedom and to make their own choices about their lives.

McEwan identifies the societal pressures to reproduce that she and other childfree individuals are subjected to as “cultural reproductive coercion”. And it certainly is a very specific form of cultural reproductive coercion– coercion to reproduce. The childfree community makes me uncomfortable (even though I do identify myself as “childfree… for now!”) because it often fails to apply an intersectional approach to this idea of “cultural reproductive coercion,” choosing only to focus on the pressure to reproduce– a pressure that is a result of white privilege and the fact that society wants you to reproduce.

I previously brought up the second-wave feminist fights for abortion rights and against sterilization restrictions, and again, if you’re familiar with those fights this may all begin to sound familiar. The “mainstream,” white, educated, cis, upper or middle class feminists of the second wave were fighting against “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because society wanted and expected them to. Many of these women found their liberation through rejecting society’s call, putting off motherhood by fighting for birth control and abortion access.


At the very same time, black, Latino, and indigenous women in America were suffering extraordinary rates of forced sterilization and forced removal of their children by social welfare agencies, while the leaders of certain groups in the Black Power movement forbid its female members from using birth control because it was akin to genocide. For these women, “cultural reproductive coercion” looked very different. Society told them not to reproduce because they would not, could not, be good mothers, and some among their own people told them they must reproduce because their people were dying out. Many of these women fought against the mainstream feminist movement’s goal of removing waiting periods and other restrictions on sterilization because those same restrictions helped prevent them from being sterilized without their consent or knowledge after a cesarean section or a routine operation. For many of these women, having a child on their own timing, by choice, and to parent that child in their own culture and communities without threat of removal by the state was liberation.

McEwan does mention race in her post about being childfree. She writes:

“…And when I still didn’t change my mind, I was subjected to all manner of shaming narratives trying to convince me there is something wrong with me if I choose not to parent. I am a traitor to my womanhood. I am an incomplete woman. I am a selfish woman. I am a frivolous woman. I am barely a woman at all, if I refuse to use my fertile, cis, female, male-partnered body for what I am told is its natural (and only) purpose. I am a traitor to my race—a white woman partnered with a white man refusing to have white babies when the white birth rate is dropping in the US. I am a traitor to my country—an educated middle-class woman refusing to make a contribution to the future of the great society which has provided her with so much. The ultimate taker among makers….”

By the end of that paragraph, McEwan finally hits the most important part of her argument: the fact that she experiences “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because she is a white woman. When we (as feminists, or as childfree individuals) talk about reproductive justice, freedom, and respect, we must also talk about white privilege. The majority of those who identify as “childfree” are white, highly educated, urban, secular individuals with higher-than-average incomes. The childfree community, specifically as it exists on the popular website Reddit, is often home to young parent shaming,  welfare shaming, and the propensity to call those who choose to parent “breeders,” which to me sounds weirdly… eugenicist.

Are the endless assumptions about a married white couple’s eventual fertility and the patronizing tone of a doctor trying to talk a young white woman out of voluntary sterilization a barrier to complete reproductive freedom? Absolutely. But we must remember that these barriers are a result of white privilege, and that poor, uneducated women of color continue to bear the brunt of our society’s “cultural reproductive coercion” not to reproduce.

A few weeks ago while spending my usual weekly morning at Planned Parenthood as a clinic escort, an older, friendly, liberal, all-around “good person” who is a fellow clinic escort said something that made me very uncomfortable. We were standing together watching one of our usual protestors who frequently chases passersby down the street to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets. Many of the escorts have noted and remarked that this protestor seems to run harder and faster after people of color, particularly young women of color, and especially young women of color accompanied by children. As we watched this fold out in front of us, the clinic escort I was standing with began to shake her head and said something similar to this: “You know, I live in [the city] so I often see these young black women walking around with three, even four kids in a stroller, and I think ‘Why don’t you just go to Planned Parenthood!’“.

Defenders of reproductive justice are not immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that constantly influences who we (as individuals and as a society) deem fit to reproduce. Feminist and reproductive justice activists along with the childfree community need to be proactive in removing oppressive “cultural reproductive coercion” against everyone.


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Fashionable Objectification? #NotBuyingIt!

A few nights ago I realized I was in desperate need of a pair of shorts to help me deal with the oncoming humidity of Northeastern summers. So, I rushed to my local H&M right before they closed. I had about ten minutes to search for cute shorts, find them in my size, and try them on before the store closed (which is quite a feat if you’re familiar with H&M’s mysterious sizing sorcery). Though I was literally running for the register while clutching my cute new floral patterned high-waisted shorts, I managed to snap these pictures of some ridiculous graphic tees I found in the “Men’s” section.




There were more of these “graphic tees” featuring close-ups and odd angles that cut off women’s heads and focus solely on sexualized parts of their bodies. As I expected, a quick look around confirmed that there were no analogous women’s (or men’s) tees featuring men in spandex or close-ups of their sinewy muscles. Driving home, these shirts occupied my thoughts. I was trying to figure out what bothered me about them. There was the obvious implicit male gaze of the photographs, the objectification of a woman’s body, and the slicing up of that body into only its desirable parts. But there was something else that was bugging me about the photographs. It was their voyeuristic quality–the idea that they were literally taken without the knowledge of their subject from a vantage point of behind or below her. It reminded me of the “Creepshot” community on the popular website, Reddit, which featured “upskirt” photos and pictures of women taken without their consent. I wondered whether the model whose body was on display knew she would be reduced to her butt covered in a patriotic bikini on a tee-shirt for men? With the retail clothing industry’s history of stealing images without the knowledge of their rightful owner, this didn’t seem like a far reach. I also wondered who this tee-shirt was being marketed to–who was the man that would see this disembodied female body on a tee-shirt and think it would look really cool in their summer wardrobe?



H&M was recently celebrated in some zones of feminist media for their advertisement for “normal” clothing featuring a “plus-size” model. Though I was far from cheering at that excuse for progress, it reinforced for me the vigilance we must have as feminist consumers. Companies are not in the business of making a feminist revolution (obviously,) they are in the business of making profits (capitalism, people).  So, get on Twitter and tell H&M you are #NotBuyingIt!


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The Only Thing You Need To Know About Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign

I have tackled Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaigns before, challenging their appropriation of body positivity and the assumption that their brand is somehow better at tackling body image issues than other brands, like Victoria’s Secret. This week, Dove came out with a new video as a part of their “Real Beauty” Campaign. It shows an FBI sketch artist drawing women as they describe themselves and then again as a “new friend” describes them. The video’s purpose is to demonstrate what most people already know: women have low self-esteem and think they are uglier than they actually are.  Alexandra Brodsky over at Feministing has covered some really important points about Dove’s new marketing campaign–mainly the fact that it reinforces standard Western beauty standards and prescribes to the “One Direction” formula for beauty: “You don’t know you’re beautiful…that’s what makes you beautiful.”

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Dove is one brand that is owned by the massive multinational corporation, Unilever, whose dozens of brands make everything from soap to ice-cream to cleaning products to teabags. Unilever owns brands like TRESemme, Vaseline, Suave, Noxzema and most noxiously, Axe. Each brand owned by Unilever markets itself individually– of course, this is why we see such faux body-positivity when Dove is advertising soap and such blatant teenage-boy level sexism when Axe is marketing its shower gel.

Dove launched their “Real Beauty” Campaign in 2004 and consumers are still buying it, despite numerous criticisms of the brand’s methods and messages. They are buying it because it is good marketing. It is targeting the people it aims to target–everyday, “average,” (mostly white) women who feel like they do not live up to society’s beauty standards. While we’re on the subject, let’s return back to Alexandra Brodsky’s point that Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign reinforces Western beauty ideals like thinness, whiteness, and small features (to name a few). Dove’s campaign also targets mostly white, middle-class women. “Real beauty” only applies to a specific kind of beauty–and we can bolster that argument with the fact that Unilever also owns the brand Fair and Lovely, which makes skin-lightening creams that are popular in India because of the globalization of Western beauty ideals.



The solution to the problems and contradictions of Dove’s ad campaign is not to stop buying soap, to protest all Unilever products, or even to reform marketing, as I’ve previously suggested. I’m pretty sure I am drinking tea made by Unilever as I write this. The problems with Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign are created by monolithic issues like capitalist ideologies, market monopolies, racism, sexism, and the like. But as consumers, we must challenge Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign by pointing out the contradictions in Unilever’s marketing strategies and telling them that we are #NotBuyingIt!


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Reproductive Justice on TV: Call The Midwife


There is a special place in my heart reserved for British television and period costume dramas–anything from Pride and Prejudice to Bleak House to Downton Abbey.  So, when I heard that BBC’s newest period drama combined fierce independent career women with 1950s hoop skirts, I knew I had to check it out.

Call the Midwife is a television dramatization of the memoirs of Jennifer (Lee) Worth¹, a young nurse and newly qualified midwife who takes a job in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In the show, nurse Jenny Lee is shocked when she finds out her new job is not at a small hospital, but at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent that houses nuns (who are also nurse midwives) along with young secular nurses. The show is realistic and gritty, detailing poverty in its worst forms–pregnant women infected with syphilis, patients traumatized by workhouses,  and bugs crawling over tea-plates. Alongside their grittiness, Call the Midwife episodes all end with a silver-lining: some sort of lesson that is learned and narrated over each episode’s closing by an older, wiser, Jenny.

Bitch Magazine has already tackled some of the important connections between Call The Midwife and reproductive justice².  Although in the 1950s birth control had been developed and used by wealthier married women in the United States, most forms of birth control were non-existent for the women in Call the Midwife. Married women gave birth to baby after baby whether they wanted to or not, and women who had sex outside of marriage took the enormous risk of pregnancy “out-of-wedlock”.  Though the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House are all midwives, their reproductive health practice goes beyond simply attending births. The show addresses STDs, incest, miscarriage, and infectious disease prevention. We see the nuns and nurses care for premature infants, veterans, mother’s who’ve lost babies, and people at the end of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, and most interestingly to me, Jenny Lee and company provide emotional as well as medical care to their patients.

In the second episode of series one, a young Irish girl stops nurse Jenny Lee on the street and begs her to change a bank note for her, revealing that she hasn’t eaten in two days, but is afraid someone will think she stole the money if she uses it to purchase a meal. Jenny immediately notices that the girl looks pregnant, and takes her into the restaurant for some food. The girl, Mary, reveals that she ran away from a rough family situation in Ireland and was taken in by a man named Zakir and forced to work as a prostitute. After they share a meal, Mary, who is only fifteen years old, tells Jenny that she can’t go back to the brothel because she is afraid that they will hurt her and force her to have an illegal abortion. Mary tells Jenny that she sometimes slept with three or four men in a night and tells a shocked Jenny: “God love your innocence, Nurse Jenny Lee. Which of us is the oldest now?”


Sister Julienne, the nun in charge of Nonnatus House, finds Mary a place to stay at Father Joe’s home for unwed mothers. After discovering that Zakir has been following and watching Mary, Jenny and Father Joe quickly transfer her to another home far outside of the city, where she gives birth to a baby girl called Kathleen. Jenny visits Mary, who tells Jenny about her experience giving birth.  “The midwife had a mustache… I yelled a little bit. She kept on saying ‘Nearly over’… All I kept thinking was, it’s nearly starting. I’m nearly a mam.” Jenny returns to Nonnatus House, pleased that she was able to help Mary and her child.

A short time later, Jenny receives a letter in the mail, with a messily written note stating, “baby gone please come”. Jenny immediately knows it is from Mary and rushes to the home to check on her. Jenny finds Mary sobbing and screaming for her baby, who has been placed for adoption by Father Joe. Jenny is furious as Father Joe tells her “Babies are always placed for adoption in these cases. It’s thought to be in the child’s best interest.” Jenny asks, “What about Mary’s best interest? She is that child’s mother and she did not consent!” Father Joe responds: “She can’t consent. She’s only fifteen. She’s legally a child herself… it was a case of which child should we choose.”

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This exchange between Father Joe and Nurse Jenny Lee is fascinating. While Father Joe displays a paternalistic concern for what he thinks is right for Mary, his concerns should not be written off. He later brings up issues of economic justice, mentioning that Mary has no home, no education, or skills other than prostitution. He stresses that without a baby, Mary will be employable. He says: “She could find love. She could have another child.” Jenny asks “Do you think that will console her?” and Father Joe replies, “It consoles me.” Jenny then cares for Mary, physically and emotionally, though there is nothing she can do to reconnect Mary with her wanted child.

In many ways, these strict traditions about unwed mothers and babies born out of marriage are a thing of the past. But shaming teen mothers who choose to parent is not a relic of the 1950s. New York City’s recent ad campaign³ against teen pregnancy has been heavily criticized by feminists for shaming teens who choose to parent, whether their pregnancy was planned or not. NYC’s campaign echoes Father Joe’s concerns that a teen parent will not have the economic ability to care for a child and therefore should not be given a chance to parent.

This episode of Call The Midwife does not leave viewers feeling like either Father Joe or Nurse Jenny were correct. As the episode closes we see Mary leaving the home without her child and into an uncertain future as adult Jenny tells us: “Mary was never reunited with her child. She might look for her, but her name would not be Kathleen anymore.” Mary’s blank face in this final scene reminds us that Mary was not allowed to control her reproductive future. While the nuns at Nonnatus House were able to save Mary from a forced abortion, they were not able to assist her in keeping and parenting the child that she very much wanted. In the reproductive justice movement, there is often a focus on making sure all people can access safe and legal abortion, but Call the Midwife is an important representation of the range of issues that reproductive justice must address in order to truly allow every person to determine their own lives.


¹ Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth (please buy from local/independent bookstores when you can!)

² Call the Midwife: What Nuns Know about Reproductive Justice by Jill Moffett. Bitch Magazine (29 Oct, 2012)

³ New York City’s teen pregnancy campaign 

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What Google Thinks About Feminisms

Disclaimer: The title of this post is NOT meant to indicate that Google as a company OR as a collection of employees thinks these things. By “Google” I mean to indicate collective internet consciousness, as these autofills reflect common searches done by people who use Google’s services.

This post was inspired by Steph Herold, who recently tweeted this picture:


Honestly, it was no surprise to see that public perceptions of feminist movements are often way off the mark. But when I started doing some Google research of my own, I found some more harmful ideas emerge. (Trigger warning: transphobia):

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This Is What Consent Looks Like

I recently finished up a course on Rape and Sexual Assault. I was shocked to learn that there are people in the world who believe that rape culture does not exist–people who excuse, belittle, and stigmatize rape and sexual assault. Once you learn what rape culture is, you realize that it is everywhere. It is woven into our cultural narratives about sex, gender identity, and sexuality and reproduced constantly in our stories, from tasteless rape jokes to sensationalized sexual violence in procedural crime dramas.

What is Rape Culture? 

“In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are” (Definition of Rape Culture from FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture).

What is Consent?

Consent is a major weapon in the fight against rape culture. Consent is…

  • A voluntary, sober, imaginative, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest, and verbal agreement
  • An active agreement: Consent cannot be coerced
  • A process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask
  • Never implied and cannot be assumed, even in the context of a relationship. Just because you are in a relationship does not mean that you have permission to have sex with your partner. (from SAVP and Consent is Sexy¹).

Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

As simple as consent sounds, many people in our sex-negative, rape-excusing, patriarchal culture find the idea to be controversial. Realizing how vital consent is to healthy intimate relationships requires a lot of relearning. A lot of mainstream/violent pornography, music videos, lyrics, and ads enforce the idea that women* are always willing and ready for sex. Movies and television shows regularly create story-lines and plots that revolve around acquaintance rape involving drugs and alcohol².

Consent is not merely, “Do you want to have sex with me? (Check YES or NO). Consent is “…a process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask”. That idea scares people for a few reasons. Images of sex in the media enforce male entitlement to women’s* bodies as objects to be used for one-sided pleasure².  “We raise women to be nice, please others and put their needs last; we raise men to be entitled douchenozzles who don’t take no for an answer; and then we put the burden on women to be gatekeepers” (from Yes Means Yes). Images of sex in the media show sex as spontaneous, serious, and always pure sexy. Participants hardly ever speak or laugh (unless the scene is meant to be humorous in some way) and especially never communicate about their desires.

These images, coupled with the “process” idea of consent, have created a lot of satire and mocking of the idea of consent, beginning with the infamous Antioch College Consent Policy in the early 1990s. The idea of consent as a process was mocked as an unrealistic radical feminist ideal meant to shut all men up into prisons as rapists. One major reason that this belief is still held is because we do not have images in our media of people communicating their sexual desires or affirming consent during sexual activities without it being mocked. Consent is not solely verbal and it is performed in different ways depending on the context– people in a long-term sexual relationship will have different ways of affirming consent than people engaging in sexual activities together for the first time. I believe that including images of consent in our popular culture is a major stepping-stone in transforming and eventually ending rape culture.

Transforming Rape Culture

This Is What Consent Looks Like is a collective social media project to show media creators that erasing rape culture and celebrating consent is not difficult. It asks participants to “rewrite” rape culture in our popular media. So, pick a scene from your favorite film or TV show, figure out where consent is not articulated, and then rewrite the scene to include consent. The main purpose of this project is to show fans and creators of popular media that getting rid of rape culture and inserting consent into their media creations is not difficult and will not “ruin” their creative vision.


*I’ve used the word “woman” here because when looking at society and culture as a whole, women are represented in the media and in crime statistics as the majority of rape victims. However, it is vital to feminist thought to acknowledge that women are not solely rape victims and men are not solely rape perpetrators.

¹Many feminists take issue with the phrase “consent is sexy,” insisting that basic bodily integrity should not need to be sexualized in order to be respected. I wholly agree with this view, but I am not against the use of the slogan in all cases. I think that consent needs to be a part of our cultural narratives about sex– a major way of doing this is by showing consent as sexy or as part of “sexy” situations to encourage the dialogue about promoting consent and fighting rape culture.

² For more, see Dreamworlds 3,

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