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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.

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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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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.:

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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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This Is What Consent Looks Like

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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.

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*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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Representations of Poverty in “The Casual Vacancy”

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Though I stood in line for the midnight release of almost every Harry Potter book, I was a bit more hesitant about reading J.K. Rowling’s newest book.  The Casual Vacancy has been hailed as an “adult” book, something vastly different from the author’s previous series about wands and wizards. Set in a small British town called Pagford, The Casual Vacancy follows the town’s residents through intertwining narratives, all surrounding the political issues brought forward by the death that occurs in the book’s first chapter.

Most reviews of Rowling’s newest tome have been lukewarm at best–critics and readers were put off by her very realistic prose which features swearing, drug use, depictions of rape and abuse, explicit sexuality, and references to Facebook. In contrast to Harry Potter’s magical world, where nobody ever needs to pee and magical teenagers left mostly to their own devices never progress past snogging, Pagford seems shockingly realistic. Many reviewers have blamed this feeling on Rowling “trying too hard” to show her worth beyond children’s fantasy. However, I found that the disingenuous feeling of Rowling’s realism came from somewhere else: the extreme representations of poverty in The Casual Vacancy.

   (My discussion from here forward will contain spoilers from The Casual Vacancy.)

Though Rowling’s mess of characters share screen-time pretty equally, much of The Casual Vacancy centers on the character Krystal Weedon. Krystal is the character who represents “the Fields,” a contentious area of Pagford that borders the larger town of Yarvil and contains unkempt public council housing and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. The Weedons are the only of Rowling’s main characters who live in poverty– though her remaining characters suffer from abuse, self-harm, and mental illness, they are all characterized as solidly middle class. The characterization of the Weedon’s poverty sets them apart from the other residents of Pagford, as does the fact that they serve to represent the entire idea of “the Fields,” a subject that crosses the minds of the rest of Pagford’s residents due to its political impact in the central plot point of the parish council elections.

The Casual Vacancy, and along with it, the characterization of the Weedon family, suffers from the extreme situation of poverty that Rowling chose to describe. It isn’t that the Weedon’s situation is not realistic– of course, stereotypes of poverty are informed by real brushes with it. The problem is that by representing social issues like poverty in extremes, we often cannot recognize the problem in any of its other forms.

The argument against extremes was first articulated to me through a feminist lens in a 1989 bell hooks article, “Violence in Intimate Relationships: A Feminist Perspective”. Hooks argues that while feminists have had to focus on extremes to bring an issue to the attention of the public, this same focus can be harmful when addressing more common forms of the problem. In the essay, hooks uses the term “battered women” to illustrate her argument. “Battered woman” not only defines a victim of intimate partner violence by their injuries, but implies repeated, visible, and ongoing physical abuse. When the term “battered woman” is translated into a representative figure in books, television, or film, we get the typical image of a battered wife– visibly bruised, emotionally shaken, and marked with a token black eye. This image erases many other forms of intimate partner violence that occur, most notably, emotional abuse that does not leave such visible scars.

The argument against extremes has been brought up in many feminist issues. In 2011, feminist activists convinced the FBI to change its definition of rape, which had not been updated since 1920. The FBI’s old definition included the phrase, “forcibly and against her will,” which (despite the obvious gender pronoun issues) placed pressure on rape survivors and law enforcement to prove whether the rape was “forcible”. The FBI definition was influenced by larger myths that we have about rape in society: that rape is usually committed by an evil stranger in a dark alley who physically injures their resisting victim. As feminists, we know these myths are wrong, but society continues to focus on “extreme” versions of the crime, which is represented and then echoed through our media and laws.

The same problem of extremes exists in society’s treatment of poverty. I am speaking from an American perspective, which of course differs from the exact issues of poverty that are prominent in Britain, specifically regarding issues of race. But here are just a handful of ways society creates a specific idea of what “poor” is supposed to look like:

Poor folks are regularly ridiculed for using food stamps to buy basically anything (soda, “junk food,” or treats for children). Poor people who buy new shoes must not really be poor. Poor people should stop having children, but we don’t want to pay for their contraception either. If you are not homeless, you are not really poor. If you buy fast food, you aren’t really poor. If you have money to celebrate birthdays/holidays/etc, then you’re not really poor. And so on. 

In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep this past September, Rowling touched on her own experience with poverty in Britain and how it informed her writing of The Casual Vacancy. Rowling said: “It’s not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me”.  She may have been better off writing something closer to her story. Rowling is well-known for her period of poverty while she was writing the first Harry Potter book as a single mother. This time in Rowling’s life is almost mythical in the media, which likes to toss around stories about her writing the novel on napkins because she couldn’t afford paper. The media has also written that Rowling’s habit of writing in cafes was directly related to her poverty– she was escaping her unheated flat. Rowling has denied such myths, complicating the portait of her time of poverty. Those myths, along with many others, feed our desires for a romantic and extreme form of poverty. But the reality of Rowling’s situation did not fit our poverty narratives. She was a poor single mother from a middle-class family, educated at the University of Exeter, divorced after an unsuccessful marriage in Portugal, and unemployed and on welfare benefits so that she could finish writing a book about a boy wizard. Rowling’s life does not fit into stereotypical poverty narratives, but it is an image of poverty nonetheless.

The Casual Vacancy is very much a book about politics and class wars, so Rowling may have intentionally created the Weedon family as a stereotype for poverty in the UK. If this was the intention, I believe she failed. Rowling herself articulates the problem that I find with her book in this quote: “One of the great problems for me is that the poor … are so often discussed just as this large, shapeless mass. You lose your individuality a huge amount when you have no money, and I certainly had that experience…”¹ .

It is unfortunate that the extreme and stereotyped description of the Weedon family represented the poor as something Rowling wished to avoid: a large, shapeless mass of stereotypes.

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Can we please stop “What about rape and incest” -ing?

This election season, the issue of abortion in the case of rape seems to be the only thing that both parties might be able to agree on. I say might because, of course, there are plenty of Republican politicians who believe that women who become pregnant from rape should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. But from my own involvement in the abortion and contraception debates on the internet and in the real world, the majority of folks are able to admit that even if the idea of abortion makes them uncomfortable, there should be certain allowances for abortion in cases of rape.

This tiny sliver of common ground feels like progress to some– but to me, the “there should be exceptions for rape and incest” rhetoric is very destructive to the future of the abortion debates and to my position as an activist. This position suggests that legally and morally, only certain people are “allowed” to have abortions. It divides women with unintended pregnancies into categories of moral “good” and “bad”. Not to mention (and pay attention, MRAs) that if being raped is the only way that a woman would have access to safe and legal abortion, false rape accusations would skyrocket. 

Especially within the pro-choice movement, using “What about a woman who has been raped?” as your primary argument for abortion access is ineffective at best, because it does not get to the heart of the issue. We cannot decide who is more deserving of an abortion. We cannot judge whether a woman’s reason for having an abortion is legitimate or not. We need to trust women.

I am fiercely pro-choice and do not mind calling myself pro-abortion either (a post on that for another day) but even I would like to see later-term abortions (when a fetus is closer to medical viability) be as rare as possible. This does not mean we should make them illegal, or only accesible to women who fit certain frameworks set by the government. This means we should encourage comprehensive sex education, safe sex and contraceptive use; make all forms of contraception accesible and free; and make abortion within the 1st trimester easily accesible and free. That will reduce late-term abortions. Making exceptions only for rape will not.

I’ve heard a lot of folks say they are pro-choice, spit out a “what about rape and incest” to make their point, and then degrade women who have abortions for “convenience.” This line of thinking is so destructive. What is your definition of convenience? Is it convenience if you don’t want to be a parent, took every precaution not to become one, but became part of that 0.1% of people whose birth control fails? Is it convenience if you are a single mother of an infant who knows she won’t be able to afford food and childcare for two children under three? Is it convenience for a fifteen year old who has only known abstinence-only sex education and was told by her boyfriend that she couldn’t get pregnant the first time?

These weak arguments against abortion only show that the anti-abortion movement is more interested in controlling people’s bodies and sexuality than they are in ending abortion.

 

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Updates!

My first article was published at Feminspire.com  this week and I am thrilled at the feedback it has been getting. If you have a moment to read and comment, please do!

As The Feminist Anthropologist is approaching its one year anniversary, I’ve been making a couple of changes to the site. First, you will see that you can now reach this webpage through the url: http://www.thefeministanthropologist.com. I am very excited about this change! Second, I am looking to increase my number of guest posts. If you would like to be a guest blogger or know someone who might be interested, please email me at thefeministanthropologist(at)gmail(dot)com.

As always, you can like the site on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and explore The Feminist Anthropologist Tumblr! 

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Advertising and Marketing: Sexism Doesn’t Always Sell

As a feminist and social critic, I often point out how the advertising and marketing spheres are a major source of sexism and misogyny. From sexualization to objectification, advertisers know that sex (and poking at people’s insecurities) sells. Unfortunately, a common reaction to my blogs which point out the sexism and sheer ridiculousness of advertising and marketing is to claim that “It’s their job to sell you stuff!” I want to clear up why I believe that companies should be held responsible for how they market their products and why we as consumers should not accept sexism, sex and body-negativity, or misogyny as the status quo.

Popular consumerism feeds off of the sexism that already exists in society. This is how companies can get away with blatant sexism; unfortunately, many people just don’t notice sexist products or ads because they believe that it is “just the way things are.” JC Penney’s famously kicked up some anger with their t-shirt for young girls that read: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” More recently, Land’s End committed a major sexist advertising snafu by not only gendering the backpacks in their back-to-school issue, but by imbedding sexist messages in the ad copy itself. While the backpacks geared towards boys were “superhero tough,” the backpack marketed to girls were “tough as long division!”

Sexist ads exist because we live in a sexist society. By feeding off ideologies that already surround us, sexist media also perpetuates sexism and misogyny. Understanding the cyclical nature of harmful advertising is the first step to changing it.

From a feminist perspective this all seems very simple. It is easy to forget that some people make a living writing successful ad campaigns, or that others may accept that sexism sold to them because they don’t know there is another way. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau fight against false advertising for diet and medical products, but have yet to become very active in fighting against the more social harms of sexist business and advertising. I believe that while big change must come from consumers themselves, an awareness of social issues should be mandatory for those in the advertising and marketing fields. Advertising and marketing as a profession must be more self-reflective. It must reconcile a way to market effectively without perpetuating sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, sex-negativity, body-negativity, etc. Some say this cannot be done, but there are many successful ads that fight against the status quo and have won companies plenty of positive media coverage. For example, a recent Ray Bans ad featured a gay couple holding hands. JC Penney was targeted by the conservative group One Million Moms for featured gay parents in their advertisements. Rather than give in to OMM’s protest, JC Penney affirmed its commitment to representing diverse families. This is one example of a company doing what they believe to be right, not necessarily what will sell more.

Calling attention to the way that sexism is perpetuated through seemingly harmless television shows, advertisements, magazine spreads, and marketing schemes is a way to disrupt the acceptance of sexism. Organizations like Miss Representation and Spark Summit do a wonderful job at calling companies out on a grander scale. Boycotting a product or writing a letter to the company explaining your disgust is always a good idea. Giving companies who use sexism to sell products lots of negative press is another step you can take. On a very micro-level, I have found that simply pointing something out to those who are around me while watching TV, riding the subway, or listening to the radio is more productive than you might think. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing my younger siblings declare, “That’s so sexist,” while watching television.

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Filed under advertising, feminism, sexism, Uncategorized

Gender, Race, and the Wage Gap: Why Intersectionality Matters

We often talk about the wage gap solely in terms of gender. From the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the argument over whether a wage gap exists at all, we are usually only talking about men vs. women. The wage disparities that many people face, however, have more to do with the intersection of gender and race. White women, the group of people who are most talked about and targeted in the discussions of the wage gap, actually make more money than everybody except white men. Black men make less than white women, and black women make less than black men. Hispanic men make less than black women. Finally, hispanic women are most disadvantaged by the wage gap, making only $0.60 to a white man’s dollar.

Before I continue on with this discussion, I’d like to address some of the confusion that arises when we talk about the wage gap. The wage gap exists and is affected both by race and gender. However, the statistics that are used in order to locate the wage gap vary enormously. Many people argue that choices, not racism or sexism, create the wage gap¹. They argue that men work more hours per week than women and that women tend to enter lower-paying career fields. These arguments have been debunked time and time again². No matter how many outside factors you control for, women make less money than men for doing the same work.

Women are not the only demographic affected  by the wage gap. Race weighs more heavily on wage disparities than gender. But the wage gap is still seen as merely a feminist issue. This is why feminism and other movements for equality need to look at this and many other issues with an intersectional lens. The wage gap affects working women, but it also affects men of color, single-parent families, and poverty levels. Media coverage of the wage gap needs to include these groups that are affected the most, not just focus on white women vs. white men. Feminism does not own the fight against the wage gap. This fight belongs to men and women of color, families in poverty, gay and transgender workers, as well as women everywhere.

For more information on the wage gap and intersectionality, see:

Infographic: The Gender Pay Gap– See What Inequity in Earnings Costs Women and Their Families Each Year and Over Their Lifetimes

Top 10 Facts About The Wage Gap 

Pay Equity and Single Mothers of Color: Eliminating Race-Based and Gender-Based Wage Gap Key to American Prosperity

The Gay and Transgender Wage Gap: Many Workers Receive Less Pay Due to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

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Filed under feminism, gender, identity, politics, privilege, sexism, social justice, Uncategorized

Victoria’s Secret vs. Dove: Or, how companies appropriate body-positivity to sell you more stuff

The above image has been going around Facebook to the same devastating results as the “When did this…become hotter than this…?” meme. Both images were taken from advertising and marketing campaigns by two large companies, Dove and Victoria’s Secret, who have been appropriating body positivity to continue to profit off of people’s insecurities. While the sale of false body positivity is all I see in these images, Facebook responded positively to Dove’s ad campaign and negatively to Victoria’s Secret’s.

These reactions of “ew, gross, way too skinny” about the VS models are not at all body-positive, and the celebration of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign gives them far too much credit.

Dove’s Real Beauty campaign showcases women whose bodies fall on the societally acceptable side of normal. While people love to tell a size 0 VS model to “eat a damn sandwich,” the same people appreciate Dove’s campaign, which only celebrates the size 6, size 8, size 10, maybe size 12 curves of a conventionally attractive woman. Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign is just a marketing front for selling a line of “firming creams” to women with insecurities about “flab” and cellulite. Does Dove’s campaign ad show a few more women of color, a few more “curvy” women, and a little bit less retouching than Victoria’s Secret’s ads do? Yes. But is Dove really the savior of women everywhere whose self-esteem is continuously torn down by our culture and media? Not a chance.

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign has been around for a few years now and the criticisms of it are widely documented. Now, Victoria’s Secret–the cultural gatekeeper of sexual perfection and unattainable bodies–has weakly used body-positive language to sell bras to women who may worry that their partners prefer watching the VS fashion show to looking at their imperfect bodies. Even though “I Love My Body” is very weakly tied to actual bodies– the bras they are selling as called “Body” bras, so really it’s just “I Love My Bra”– the use of a body-positive statement to sell products is offensive.

Dove, Victoria’s Secret, and those who celebrate these campaigns need to understand that loving your body, appreciating real beauty, and being body-positive is incompatible with buying products to make you do so. These pathetic marketing campaigns continue to profit off our insecurities when the truth is that self-esteem cannot be bought. The same fake endorsements of body-positivity can be seen in Julia Bluhm and Spark Summit’s recent “success” in getting Seventeen Magazine to stop airbrushing models. While Seventeen talks the talk with its diplomacy with Bluhm and its “Body Peace Treaty,” the magazine cannot celebrate real bodies because it makes its business by advertising to girls that they need certain products to be prettier, cooler, sexier, and more desirable.

What is the solution to this? We all need to buy soap or lotion or those special halter-back bras from Victoria’s Secret; companies make a business selling us things. So buy the things you need–but don’t let them convince you that you “need” something to make you sexier, prettier, more confident, or more desirable. Be critical of advertising and don’t fall for the celebration of “body-positive advertising” that is just another front for manipulative marketing. Criticize the sexism, the airbrushing, and the message that you are not good enough. And don’t tell the VS model to eat a sandwich.

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Filed under advertising, body image, feminism, gender, sexism, Uncategorized

Should we listen to rapists?

In its focus on rape culture, contemporary feminism has encouraged victims of rape or sexual assault to share their stories. These stories aim to reveal that rape does not always have to be violent or predatory, that perpetrators are often people we are familiar with, and that rape occurs more often than we’d like to think. This week, a Reddit user reoriented the discussion of rape culture by posting a thread asking rapists to share their stories. The thread was titled: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?”.

This thread began a slew of comments and commentary that questioned the effects of allowing rapists to anonymously share their stories of committing rape and sexual assault. The thread itself is very disturbing, including comments from people who begin their stories with, “I don’t think this was rape but…”. Many posters expressed feelings of remorse or confusion about what they did wrong. Others explained clear stories of rape or assault surrounded by justifications of why it was okay. There were stories from intentional, serial rapists, and stories from those just now realizing that they may have sexually assaulted someone.

Internet users have had mixed reactions to the thread and its usefulness as a resource for change. Many feel that the anonymity afforded by Reddit is too much of a kindness to self-admitting rapists, and that it is disrespectful to their victims to share the story of their assault for the whole world to see. Others feel that the only use for the thread would be to track down the identities of these users and make sure they are prosecuted for their actions.

The above concerns are valid. Victims should be morally, socially, and legally considered above their attackers. It makes me rather uncomfortable that many of these posters continue to live their lives, walk the streets, and work in our communities after knowing they have committed such a crime. However, Jezebel thinks that there are reasons to listen to rapists, and I agree. Here are the most important things that I learned from Reddit’s stories from rapists:

1. Sexual Education needs to stress consent, consent, consent.

The number of Reddit posters who had created their own definitions of rape, assault, and consent was astounding. The number of commenters who told posters: “That isn’t really rape,” was offensive. All of this vague language regarding sex and consent could easily be solved by early, comprehensive, and sex-positive sexual education. People need to understand that just because someone has not said “no,” does not mean they have given consent. Consent is active, enthusiastic, and positive. Not neutral, not passive, not “not fighting back”.

2. Alcohol and drugs make consent more complicated.

This is not to say, “Don’t ever mix drugs/alcohol with sex,” because that is both unrealistic and pretty much impossible. It is only to say that getting consent while drunk/high is a whole different level– for consent experts only. Many of Reddit’s rapists’ stories included hazy cases of consent where the victim and/or rapist were intoxicated  . For more information about alcohol/drugs and sex, see the below video by YouTuber Laci Green.

3. Speaking up about rape and sexual assault is important– from both sides. 

Rape only happens because somebody decides to rape somebody else. Whether or not that decision is made by someone who is informed about what rape means is up to us. As I stated above, consent must be stressed above all else in our sexual education. Rapists must be held accountable legally, morally, and socially. I will leave you with this comment from Redditor mrrrrrow:

I would just like to post a plea to the people here who have expressed remorse – even if you don’t feel like you can apologise to your victim, you can still do a lot of good. Please speak to the next generation. There are young people and teenagers growing up right now who will make the same mistakes. We have the most appalling attitude towards sex education in general, but boys and girls need to know that ‘stranger rape’ is not the most common form of rape. They need to know that these situations do happen.

Tell the young men1 in your life your story (sanitised as much as seems necessary). Tell them how your situation arose, why you kept going without consent, what it meant to you afterwards, how you’ve come to your position of remorse. Ask them how they would feel if that was their sister, friend, mother, and to remember that every girl2 is someone’s sister, friend, daughter.

If you can, go into schools and colleges and tell your story. Contact self-defence and sexual assault prevention groups for help on outreach.

Although some of the posts in this thread are beyond what I can bring myself to read, I do think that the conversation needs to happen. The only way to truly prevent rape is to teach people not to rape.

1 I acknowledge that not all rapists are men, but they overwhelmingly are. And obviously not all men are rapists.

2 Ditto not all victims are women

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I apologize for the lack of updates; I have taken the past week to get acclimated to my new position as a Social Media/Publicity Intern for an awesome website called A Mighty Girl. If you follow A Mighty Girl’s Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest, you’ll be seeing lots of my behind-the-scenes work!

 

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Filed under feminism, privilege, rape culture, sexism, sexuality, social justice, Uncategorized