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“The True Cost”: A Documentary on the Global Fashion Industry’s Impact

am-bioFor many consumers, the tragedy of the Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people inspired a new consciousness about the ugly truth of the clothing industry that had rarely been exposed so powerfully. For director Andrew Morgan, the tragedy was an impetus to turn this consciousness into action and start production for a documentary on the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry, titled ‘The True Cost.’ The film incorporates the voices of ethical fashion experts such as Scott Nova of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney of the brand People Tree, and Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York to help illuminate the complexity of this dilemma while paving the way for solutions towards a more sustainable future.

Morgan’s film is in pre-production and he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his film. You can check out his trailer below:

Nadia: So, would you mind elaborating on the meaning behind the film’s title, ‘The True Cost?’

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We’ve got to get out of this place … the Rana Plaza factory fire, April 24, 2013.

Andrew: As consumers, we are used to making buying decisions based on cost, or the garment’s final price tag. And what this film intends to reveal is a human and environmental cost to bringing that product to market that aren’t reflected on that price tag, and that we just don’t see. And we are faced with an industry that has banked on the reality that most people aren’t going to think twice about what they are buying, because they think there is an invisible cost to their consumption. Some experts have referred to the environmental and labor violations within the global clothing industry as one of the best kept secrets in the world. So we really want to make these costs clear in our film as we examine how we got to this place, its global ramifications, and what needs to be done to articulate a different future.

Nadia: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Andrew: For me, seeing the picture in the New York Times of the two boys  walking in front of a wall of missing persons signs broke my heart. It really put a human and personal touch to what is a complex global issue. I immediately started doing research and talking with people in the industry from all over the world, and was just shocked by what I found. I mean, we are clearly in a place where the situation keeps on getting worse, not better. Three of the worst tragedies of the clothing industry were in the past year, and the environmental side is also horrifying.

But at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of socially conscious business, and I’m excited by the prospect of that being the intended model. And the fact is, when we look at tragedies like Rana, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why we should be in this position where we are now. It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way—there is so much potential for good and for change that is truly attainable. And what has motivated me in this research is also speaking to so many of these pioneers who have laid the foundation for this film by doing truly amazing work for the past few decades.

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Nadia: Ethical fashion—treating workers humanely and producing garments sustainably—seems to make sense. Why then do you think there has been some resistance to the idea of ethical fashion? 

Andrew: I think there has been this tendency to view this issue through this two-sided lens of ‘capitalism vs. people who care.’ In the United States especially people can get very defensive whenever you start to mess with what is considered free market capitalism. We’re very afraid of ‘socialism’ and extreme terms that we don’t even understand. We’re quick to put that label which we think threatens a system that ultimately provides profit. And I definitely think there have been moments in our history where people get complacent, when we think this is truly the best we can get.

But now we are in this current cultural moment where I truly believe people are realizing that we can actually evolve this system to move forward. I don’t think anyone is coming forward to say anything other than that we’ve built a system that can advance human progress substantially, but we’re not done. So let’s think of a third way that goes beyond this idea that you have to choose between ‘socialism’ or ‘exploitation.’  Now that we know more today that we did yesterday, let’s just evolve the system and grow. And in a world in which people are more connected than ever, let’s include more voices around the table. Even generationally, there’s a move towards, “I’m tired of fighting you. Let’s have a conversation and get things done.” I think that’s happening in a lot of ways now. There’s another group of people who are coming along that feel like capitalism could evolve and it could do even more good than it’s doing now, and less harm.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, being interviewed for the film. (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: I love what you said about there being moments where we are complacent. Sometimes it seems like we have very short memories. For example, it frustrates me when I hear arguments against any kind of regulation, because it’s like we have forgotten that in the decades following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911, governments imposed basic regulations that greatly improved health and safety conditions in the factories! 

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 led to better safety and health regulations in the industry…so regulation isn’t exactly a new thing!

Andrew: Exactly. And to add to that, throughout history, industry has always rebelled against regulation. And so government and activists always have to push the tide back for more regulation. In the United States we regulate everything. No one would acknowledge that but we really do. Just think about the food industry, or environmental pollution. We really do regulate everything, and historically industry has always rebelled. People forget that industry even rebelled against the minimum wage! So when it comes to this outsourcing to factories abroad, we need to have a system where these western brands that are making all this profit aren’t just self-regulating, but that there’s actual accountability and traceability. Because at the end of the day, there’s a profound violation of human rights that needs to be accounted for.

Nadia: In the opening of your trailer, you mention that you were told this “simple story” about where your clothes were made—which was that they were “made in faraway places by these ‘other people’ and these people needed the work.” Do you think part of our cultural apathy and ignorance has to do with the geographical distance between people who buy products and those who make them?

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Do we treat workers better when we see their face and we know who they are? A woman sews for Timbuk2 Bags in San Francisco

Andrew: The world has indeed moved to a more and more abstract a place. There’s actual psychology to this idea that if someone was in my village and made my shirt, I would never force them to endure what many of these workers in countries like Bangladesh are going through.  But because we live in a world now where we’re not in touch with anything that we eat or wear, it makes us capable of outsourcing not only the product but the consequences of making that product in an irresponsible way.

Nadia: Could you describe a bit more your aesthetic as a filmmaker and how you hope your film will take these abstract problems and turn them into tangible solutions for your viewers? What can film do that other mediums can not in educating people about this issue?

I am most interested in narrative and documentary story telling, and I really love to tell stories that are true and honest, that give hope for a better tomorrow. I often look for issues that have been decades in the work, where the groundwork and models have been tested. And I think with ethical fashion, there’s a potential here to break this out of the little corner that it’s been in, and to bring it to a wider audience.

Part of the problem has been in how we are telling a story, and I think film can really change that. When people are being entertained, they lower their guard, and there’s this opportunity to make them aware of really new and disruptive ideas. I’m after those moments. And in just an hour and a half, I have this chance to make a change. It means I need to pick out the key moments that can create a reaction in both their head and heart. I want to make these ideas accessible to the ordinary person without dumbing anything down, and I really want the place that we’re in right now to appear ridiculous. Because at the moral center, it is ridiculous. But at the same time, I don’t believe in motivating people through shame and guilt. I want to look at the world through a lens of hope. People don’t like being talked down to or judged. It’s better to say, “let’s imagine this better world we could live in today.”

What can film do that other mediums can't?

What can film do that other mediums can not? (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: In your trailer you mentioned how stories often rely on a strong protagonist and antagonist, but in this story you are telling it will be difficult to point out any one person or institution that is solely responsible. Will you be creating a new kind of story-telling with this film?

Andrew: Our approach is to include many points of view in the film creating a collage of ideas and implications. For example living life in the shoes of a garment worker in Bangladesh, a sourcing manager for H&M, a factory auditor in China or a village in India effected by improper dumping from leather tanneries. Rather then pinning one idea against each other and watching them fight it out, we are combining ideas into solution sets that are real and tangible. As I stated in the Kickstarter page, we believe that true change will only be sustained through the creation of a synergistic approach, one that involves the adaptation of policy, the improvement of industry standards and a shift in consumer consciousness. It sounds complicated but the result will be a film that moves quickly, and flows easily making the world feel as small as it truly is. Ultimately I want to acknowledge this complexity, while giving voice to a moral clarity.

What is it like to be in this woman's shoes?

What is it like to be in this Bangladeshi’s garment worker’s shoes? (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

Nadia: What message do you hope your viewers will walk away with after watching the film?

Andrew: I want to articulate a future where people in the global supply chain are more closely connected, and where factory jobs empower people through  good work rather than exploiting them. A future where people are more aware about the environmental implications, and buy fewer items that last longer. I would love for viewers to leave my film inspired to start conversations about what the cost of their consumption is, and to be empowered to help change it. And my hope is that by starting these conversations, eventually we will come to a place where ‘ethical fashion’ isn’t a niche, but the new normal.

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

There’s just a few more days to raise funds so that this film can be made! Donate here (even a dollar helps, and you get cool gifts if you contribute a little more) and share with friends! Let’s do this!!

Share on Facebook for a chance to win jewelry from the fair trade organization Global Girlfriend! (cause I’m all about supporting the girlfriends!) You can check out the giveaway here.

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Misee Harris: Why a Black Bachelorette May Matter More Than You Think

"I'm totally in love with this island and $40,000 ring — I mean, you."

“I’m totally in love with this island and the $40,000 ring — I mean, you.”

The Bachelor. For 25 seasons, millions of viewers have watched a familiar formula of women crying, helicopter rides as first dates, and so many red roses given and ‘I love yous’ exchanged that have, with the exception of three cases, ended in break-ups. The show isn’t exactly a rousing advertisement for the institution of marriage, but rather a venue for many contestants to pursue pseudo-permanent reality television careers and fratty cruise events where they can hook up with other like-minded, shallow people.

Can you tell I’m not a diehard fan? (And yes, I know I enjoy my Housewives. But we all have our contradictions, and I’m living with mine every day, gfs).

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Pediatric Dentist Misee Harris campaigns to be the next Bachelorette.

So it may surprise you that I’m actually a big advocate of Misee Harris’ social media campaign to become the first black bachelorette. The pediatric dentist from Tennessee is an absolute knockout who also has a huge heart, given her commitment to mentoring young women and volunteer efforts with children who have autism. She has a precious video of her with her dog, is sweet with her Facebook fans and quotes 2 Chainz. Nuff’ said.

I'm annoying and shady and nobody liked me...thank God I'm white! It's like, totally awesome.

I’m annoying and shady and nobody liked me … was I picked because I’m white? That’s like, totally awesome.

So why the social media campaign? Although Harris applied and was chosen to be a contestant on a previous season of The Bachelor, she ultimately withdrew because she was concerned about ‘being another token.’ Given that all 25 seasons of the franchise have featured white Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and that there have been very few contestants of color, this is totes a valid concern. Here is what bothers me. Misee Harris is pretty much perfect. I mean seriously, how many people do you know who possess all of her exceptional qualities? When you consider some of the other not-so-perfect contestants on the show (Vienna Girardi anyone? Or Brad Womack? OK those were the only seasons I watched, promise ;)), it seems a bit ridiculous for creator Mike Fleiss to make the claim that diverse contestants don’t come forward, and that when they do, it feels a ‘bit forced,’ like ‘tokenism.’

An earth angel, not a token! (photo courtesy of Jaimie Tull of Tull Studios).

First of all, isn’t there an argument to be made that viewers have been ‘forced’ to endure ten years of nearly all-white casts that for many of us, do not reflect the diversity of people we engage with in our daily lives? Also, tokenism in this context would imply that a non-qualified contestant was picked simply because they added diversity. But to dismiss a beautiful, successful, charitable woman because of the color of her skin? How does that constitute anything but systematic racial exclusion? Seriously dude, check out the Wikipedia definition of these terms before you preach such foolishness, fo’ real.

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I was SO heart-broken a week ago, but now I’m the new Bachelorette—score!

Furthermore, why is it that the Bachelorette must be a former contestant? Isn’t the formula getting a tad stale? I mean really, every season, it’s the same deal—white woman gets ‘heart broken’ on The Bachelor, sits in Chris Harrison’s hot seat during the reunion show for ten minutes and cries about how she is ‘looking for love’ and has finally moved on from the Bachelor who she fell in love with over those two dates she had with him, only to come back a week later smiling and radiant as she is announced the new Bachelorette. We. get. it.

Now I know there are many peeps out there who will argue that The Bachelor isn’t a show that contestants of color should strive to be on in the first place, and that it might actually demean an accomplished woman like Harris. I have a few responses to this, and I highly recommend that you act out a Snap! as I make each point, so get ready. First of all, regardless of whether or not you think Harris should be on the show doesn’t take away from the fact that Harris wants to be on the show. At the end of the day, she should be granted an equal opportunity, period. Yes I know, she could have been a contestant on The Bachelor and won a chance to become the next Bachelorette, but considering that very few contestants of color have gotten far on previous seasons of the show, the odds of that happening were very much against her. Secondly, The Bachelor is one of television’s most popular franchises that is watched by millions of people religiously and has, like it or not, cultural influence. To give a show an all-inclusive title like ‘The Bachelor’ implies that there are going to be all kinds of contestants on the show, not a whitewashed view of relationships and marriage that as Jezebel put it, “couldn’t be further from reality.” I mean seriously, if Mike Fleiss is going to be so blunt about his reasons for excluding people of color, then he should have named it ‘The White Bachelor.’ Or, ‘The Fratty Bachelor.’ Or even better, ‘The White, Fratty, Straight, Christian Bachelor.’ You know? Keep. It. Real.

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

Quick side note. Similar criticisms were leveled at Lena Dunham of the show Girls, for featuring an all-white cast in the middle of Brooklyn. And guess what? Dunham admitted that had been an oversight and promptly addressed the lack of diversity in the second season. I love me some self-reflection. LOVE.

Lena figured it out, so why can't Mike?

Lena figured it out, so why can’t Mike?

Finally, it is precisely this cultural permeability, this accessibility, that can actually make a show like The Bachelor a potentially powerful tool for creating conversations on topics around relationships and some other pretty serious issues. Doubtful? OK, let’s take the example of Sean Lowe’s season, which did feature a fairly diverse group of contestants, including an Iraqi woman named Selma Alameri. Former Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky took it upon herself to write a blog entry titled “Selma’s boobs, Roller Derby, and Tierra Drama” in which she makes fun of Selma’s cleavage and criticizes her intent to stay true to her mother’s wishes and not kiss Sean on national television.

(Brief aside/rant: There’s nothing I love more than when someone like Ali, who has reaped the benefits from The Bachelor for all the reasons mentioned above, takes an opportunity to shame a woman of color’s body on a public forum as well as provide ‘cutting-edge’ cultural criticism. No really, it’s like, my favorite thing ever. She should totes come back for another season of The Bachelorette, cause last I checked, season one didn’t work out too great. Oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!).

Aside over. When reading the comments in the article below, there was definitely quite a bit of backlash against Ali for, as one person put it, “discussing other cultures in a blog when you don’t know anything about that culture.” Then one person responded to that comment by asking,

Maybe you can help explain why this point of view is wrong. To those who don’t know much about/understand these cultures, Selma is a bit confusing. Where do we draw the line of modesty on national television? I don’t know much about the Muslim faith myself, but I was under the impression that women were supposed to dress more modestly, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not be spooning and caressing on national television. What makes kissing so taboo in relativity to those other things?

Then over at Reality Steve, the blogger who posts spoilers every season, someone responded to his comments calling Selma a ‘tease’ for dressing sexy but not ‘putting out’ by noting,

I take MAJOR issues with you going on and on about how Selma dresses sexy and thus she was a ‘cock tease’ for not putting out with Sean. Wow Steve, so if a woman dresses sexy, she has to put out? That’s how rape culture is perpetuated, FYI.

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

This is why I think pop culture shows can be so awesome, because they can facilitate important conversations on issues like culture and gender that need to be had, just by the nature of their accessibility. While the diversity of blogs in the blogosphere is exciting, there is a potential that certain communities which cater to specific topics will only pull in the interested and invested, ultimately preaching to the choir. I love the idea that having a diverse group of contestants on a show that so many people watch might provoke questions and spark conversations on cultures that are different from theirs in a way that they might not normally engage with. I mean seriously, I love that someone might actually learn something, or at the very least, be inspired to learn, about the Islamic faith after watching an episode where two people go on a date, climb a rock, and toast marshmallows over a campfire. Furthermore, as this blogger put it,

Such a show would inherently promote the idea that black women are desirable. It disrupts the cultural narratives in media—that some see as propaganda—promoting the expectation that African-American women should be perpetually single. It de-emphasizes the standard of a white, fair-haired woman as the epitome of female beauty and worthiness, a standard which fuels billions of dollars in sales of hair dye, hair extensions, and skin-bleaching creams globally. This beauty ideal also contributes to the absence of black women from the ranks of the highest paid models and actresses, where our form of beauty tends to be an occasional exotic trend rather than embraced as an everyday normality.

Scandal proves we're reading for a black leading lady.

Scandal proves we’re reading for a romantically attractive black leading lady.

As she further points out, it is not like Americans aren’t interested in high-profile relationships involving black women, including those of Beyonce and Jay Z, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith, and of course, Michelle and Barack Obama. Seriously, if Americans are ready for a relationship between two black people in the White House, then why can’t they watch a black woman date on a show that isn’t just comical (read: Flavor of Love)? And if Mike Fleiss is so concerned about ratings, perhaps he should look to the show Scandal, which features an affair between a powerful black broker played by Kerry Washington and a white president that is bringing in eight million viewers an episode.

Pop culture visibility matters, and Misee Harris deserves to be part of it. If she were chosen I would totes watch, and it’s not just because she’s black. It is because she is a professional, talented woman who would add interest due to the nature of her accomplishments. That being said, picking a diverse roster of candidates for her would also add a lot of interest, and it would probably get people talking. And that’s a good thing, right girlfriends?

Want to show Misee some love and support? Check out her Facebook page and her twitter account, and tweet Mike Fleiss @fleissmeister letting him know you want @miseeharris as the next #bachelorette!

And check out this Huff Po live interview with Misee!

An abridged version of this article is now on The Huffington Post.

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2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Fierceness is SO much more than posing as a circus freak for ANTM. Sorry, Tyra.

Happy New Year! So I have finally come out with the much-anticipated (at least by me) ‘Fiercest figures of 2012’ list. I know I’m a little late with this (I’m running on ‘new blogger’ time) but I’ve been busy making some changes to my blog (stay tuned for some new added features, like Pinterest!) and expanding my series on Ethical Fashion, which I will be returning to this week. While the assortment of people and movements I have highlighted on this list may seem kind of random, rest assured that there is a rhyme and reason to this madness. All of these figures are connected by a theme of fierceness, which goes so beyond being able to pose as an attractive circus freak a la America’s Next Top Model, regardless of what Tyra may think. Fierceness, for me, is encompassed by those who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice. And hey, if you can do all of those things while posing as an attractive circus freak, then props. to. you. I’m not hatin’ homies.

Fashion: In many respects, it was a depressing year for fashion. Three hundred people killed in a textile factory fire in Pakistan. Toxic chemicals found in the clothes of popular brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein, and Victoria’s Secret. The fact that Wal-Mart refused to pay for Bangladesh factory safety improvements that could have prevented the deaths of 112 people. The report that revealed that ‘fast fashion’ brands like H&M and Forever 21 were exploiting their workers. Ugh. The list of sad, if not horrific stories never seemed to end, shattering the facade of glamor to which the industry so desperately clings. But these catastrophies did not go ignored. Protest movements from around the world rose up and united in their calls for a more equitable industry.  And at the same time, notable industry players were openly challenging the status quo of the industry, from normative beauty ideals to treating cultures like trends. Here are just a few of these people and movements that I thought were noteworthy to mention:

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Thousands take to the streets on the outskirts of Daka to protest working conditions in Bangladesh textile factories (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters).

Bangladesh protests: Thousands of people took to the streets to protest  the factory fire that was counted as one of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disasters. The story was covered internationally, with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity calling out “Western brands” for faulty monitoring practices.

Greenpeace: You want to know what fierce is? It’s releasing a report that reveals the toxic chemicals found in the clothes we wear, and then successfully sparking a world-wide protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Talk about getting it DONE. Awesome.

Fair Tuesday/Buy Nothing/Buy Local day: Following the consumer excess of Black Friday, these three movements emerged as a counterpoint. Fair Tuesday came out of the Fair Trade/Ethical Fashion movement, and Buy Nothing/Local out of Occupy, but taken together, the message was clear: Buy less, and if you do want to get someone a gift, make it an ethical one that uses fair labor and environmental practices.

Paul Frank Industries apologized for this offensive flyer and party, and then expressed interest in holding a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and working with a Native artist to make designs!

Paul Frank Industries didn’t just  apologize for this offensive flyer and party. They also invited Jessica and Adrienne to help host a panel on Native imagery at a future conference and expressed interest in working with a Native artist to make designs!

Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin: As I wrote in a previous post, the fashion industry is often guilty of treating different cultural groups like trends. And in the last few years, ‘Indian’ fashion has been all the rage, with outlets like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 describing their shirts as ‘Navajo’ and ‘tribal,’ and influential retailer Victoria’s Secret sending a headdressed bikini clad model down the runway. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations and Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin decided to use their online sites to demand that Native American people be represented respectfully and authentically, and in the past year, have raised awareness and sparked campaigns against Urban, Victoria’s Secret, and Paul Frank’s Fashion’s Night Out ‘Dream Catchin’ Pow wow’ party, to name just a few examples. Adrienne’s recent piece on the sexualization of Native women in pop culture, from Victoria’s Secret’s headdressed bikini clad model to Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl dressing up as a ‘pocahottie’ on Halloween, that trivializes the high rates of sexual assualt that Native women face, was really powerful.  And I’m obsessed with Jessica Metcalfe’s boutique on her site, which features the amazing work of Native designers. Love. them.

Bruno Pieters: After taking a two year hiatus from the fashion industry, former art director for Hugo Boss Bruno Pieters decided to start Honest by, the first company in the world to share the full cost breakdown of its products. As Pieters noted in this interview, “We communicate everything about the materials, the manufacturing methods, and even the pricing strategies of the products stocked with honest by, to our client. Every part of the collaboration process is transparent including the store mark up calculations.” 100% full transparency? Can we talk girlfriends??  Pieters is a trailblazer for the industry and hopefully other designers will not just take note, but follow in his footsteps.

Diane Pernet & Bruno Pieters in the art film, To Be Honest:

Kahindo Mateene: Rising star couture designer Mateene sees fashion as a “creative expression of a woman’s independence and individuality.” Many designers view fashion as a valuable avenue for self-expression, Mateene takes it one step further when she states that “fashion is most stylish when it is produced with the highest ethical and socially conscious principles.” Her online site, which was launched in 2012, boldly states “Modern. African. Ethical.” Not only are her clothes made with fair trade principles, but the African textiles and prints inspired by her Congolese background are gorgeous!

Cameron Russell: Former supermodel Russell gave a fantastic TED talk, where she focused on the social construction of beauty, and the privileging of whiteness within the industry. Contrasting pictures of her before a shoot with her actual modeling photos was a startling reminder of the power of image. She is currently one of the directors of the consulting firm The Big Bad Lab, a media platform which she hopes will allow girls to explore fashion creatively without such restrictive social norms attached to what is “ideal.”

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men's and women's collections

Casey Legler in her new ad campaign for AllSaints, where she models clothes for the men’s and women’s collections

Casey Legler: A former Olympic swimmer, Legler is a woman posing as a male model, challenging heteronormative views of gender. She looks superb in both men’s and women’s clothing, and is infinitely charming. As she notes, “I find the gender fluidity of this work so excited. Seeing me on the men’s board speaks to this notion of freedom. There’s something really bold about that. It seems to be saying ‘Look, there is also this other way. And it’s pretty rad.'”  Amen.

Elizabeth Kline: Her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, has been described as the Fast Food Nation for the fashion industry. It’s a fantastic, accessible account of how cheap fashion has impacted people, the environment, and global economies.

Diana Wang: Seduced by the title of ‘head accessories intern’ at the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, Wang headed to New York City to start what she hoped would be a glamorous experience that would open other doors into the fashion industry. Four months later, she returned to her home to Columbus, Ohio, and filed a lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, for not paying for her work. Reading her story is something out of the Devil Wears Prada. It helped to open up a larger debate about the exploitative nature of intern work, as Wang claimed that there were little educational benefits to outweigh the unpaid nature of her internship.
Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution

Vivienne Westwood: I am often wary of famous designers who claim social responsibility, as it can be difficult to gauge whether it is being done to just attract a new consumer following. But Westwood, with her punk sensibilities, is committed. From her ethical fashion line made in Kenya to her many environmental and political campaigns which she details on her blog ‘Active Resistance,’ to her clothes that express support for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and call for climate change, Westwood is one of the few designers actively using fashion as a vehicle for environmental and political activism. Her message to ‘buy less, choose well, make it last,’ has become the ethical fashion community’s mantra. I loved it when she just told people to stop buying clothes for six months to keep landfills from filling up. I mean, when Dame Vivienne tells you to do something, you kind of have to do it, right?

Bandi Mbubi: Although not directly related to fashion, Congolese activist Mbubi’s Tedx talk on the importance of sustainability in technology was an important reminder of the tragic consequences of unconscious consumerism. He documented how the crisis in Eastern Congo is being fueled by the fight over mineral resources that are often found in the technology we use. Interestingly enough, he touted technology’s ability to ‘get the word out,’ but emphasized the need for more transparent supply chains. Truly inspiring.

Media + Politics: From the presidential election to school shootings, global protest movements, drone wars, and crazy weather, the media certainly had its share of provocative stories to cover. However, the mainstream media, as I documented in a previous post, often fails to report on the news in a complex manner. Fixated with increasing ratings to make money for their corporate owners, news outlets often cut expensive funding for international reporting, instead focusing on entertainment -related news, or ‘info-tainment.’ The end result is a media landscape that treats its viewers as consumers, instead of citizens. That is why we so desperately need independent media.

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Me meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during their Election 2012 tour-def one of my top moments of the year!

Amy Goodman: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is truly, one of my heroes. Her news station is independently funded, which has allowed her to open up the dialogue to include alternative voices. Her interviews are always multi-faceted, complex, and thought-provoking. Whether it is expanding the debate to third party candidates, addressing racism in the Trayvon Martin case, or hosting one of the most insightful, coherent debates on Israeli settlements, Democracy Now! is helping to give public discourse back into the hands of its citizens. Check out their 2012’s Year in Review, and Amy Goodman’s book The Silenced Majority, which recently made the New York Times best-seller list.

The 20 women senators elected this year, OBVI: Highest ever in the country’s history, and a remarkably diverse group. The House letting the Violence Against Women Act die was depressing, but the news of these women being elected brings me hope.

Anonymous protest

Hacktivist group Anonymous organized a protest in Steubenville that attracted over 2000 followers.

Anonymous: I didn’t use to be a fan of internet vigilante justice, but I’m starting to believe that in our ever increasing corporatized media and cultural landscape that it is needed. And as I followed Anonymous in their 2012 hacktavist struggles, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their anti-corporate protest that also seemed to have a strong social justice mission to protect the marginalized. But I straight-up developed a crush on the group when they released incriminating evidence against several young men charged in the Steubenville rape case. They, along with blogger Alexandria Goddard who covered the case from the beginning and fought for mainstream media attention, are truly the young girl’s knights-in-shining-armour.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoner and now elected Parliament member of Burma, is one of the fiercest people of the century.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma has had a long history of human rights abuses, leading thousands to flee as refugees (for more information on the Burmese refugee crisis, check out this wonderful video). Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for her opposition against the government, was recently elected as a member of parliament in a resounding victory. Props also to Hillary Clinton (I mean, do you want to define fierce?), who has always admired Suu Kyi and has made Burma a focus during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Fierce women who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Savannah Dietrich – Challenged Victim Silencing: The brave young woman who, after she was sexually assaulted at a party and her attackers were let off too easy, tweeted the names of her attackers as a response to the judge who ordered that “no one should speak about this case for any reason.” That a rape victim might have received a harsher sentence than those who assaulted her sparked national outrage, and her team was successfully able to request that the boys’ court records be unsealed. The end result? The boys weren’t invited back to Trinity High School that year, and they also got a stiffer sentence. “Everyone thought I was this little girl they could intimidate,” she recently stated in an interview. Man, were they wrong. A true role model for victims of sexual assault everywhere.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn't care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, doesn’t care what people think of her as a working mom.

Marissa Mayer – Challenged Normalized views of ‘Work-life balance’: Mayer was nominated by my cousin Whitney, a lawyer, new mom, and one of the fiercest woman I personally know. Mayer, who was hired from Google for a $100 million deal to be the CEO of Yahoo, received criticism from some women for only taking two weeks of maternity leave. But as Whitney put it, “I have no problem with it, and am enjoying watching her pull this company together. For all of our conversations about women’s ‘choices,’ we never seem to question this notion that women are the only ones who are capable of taking care of their children. And at the end of the day, is it really any of our business how she chooses to raise her child?” True DAT.

Blogger Libby Ann – Challenged Propaganda on Reproductive Rights: When I read this article by a former ‘pro-life’ blogger who had come to realize that she was ‘duped’ by the rhetoric of the movement, I passed it on to everyone I knew and posted it on my Facebook. Twice. It was the most articulate, coherent dialogue on abortion I had read. Ever. Why? Because quite simply, she exposed the ‘framing’ of the pro-life movement that emphasizes saving babies as a fraud, arguing that the movement does little to provide access to contraceptives, support poor women (finally-an economic element to the debate!) who could not afford to have children, or research why half of all zygotes that are so essential to the ‘personhood’ debate fail to implant. As she put it:

The reality is that so-called pro-life movement is not about saving babies. It’s about regulating sex. That’s why they oppose birth control. That’s why they want to ban abortion even though doing so will simply drive women to have dangerous back alley abortions. That’s why they want to penalize women who take public assistance and then dare to have sex, leaving an exemption for those who become pregnant from rape. It’s not about babies. If it were about babies, they would be making access to birth control widespread and free and creating a comprehensive social safety net so that no woman finds herself with a pregnancy she can’t afford. They would be raising money for research on why half of all zygotes fail to implant and working to prevent miscarriages. It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women.

Talk about shutting. It. DOWN.

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight - and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling of the Mindy Project could care less about her weight – and red dress fierce much?

Mindy Kaling – Challenged Women’s Roles in Television: The Mindy Project is the first sitcom starring and created by an Indian-American, and one of the few starring a woman of color. It features Mindy as a successful doctor who calls the shots in a male-dominated workplace, but who’s girly and loves her girlfriends. She’s not super thin but has a positive body image. And in every single freaking episode, there is amazingly sharp and self-aware commentary on race, gender, sexuality, and pop culture. Why are people not freaking out more about this show? Oh, and just recently, Stephen Tobolowsky, the actor who played her boss, was let go because the writers wanted Mindy to be making “more decisions in the workplace on her own.” Are you freaking out now girlfriends? Mindy’s totally my crush (and I don’t need to say ‘girl crush’ because as Mindy put it in a previous episode, “are you that scared of people thinking you’re a lesbian?”). Watch this show!!

Saturday Night Live: Just got to give a quick shout-out to two brave sketches that nailed our current cultural moment. The first was ‘The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party,’ where rookie Cecily Strong aptly nailed the self-righteous hipster who is constantly taking Instagram pics, asking whether she can sing ‘Negro spirituals,’ and giving strong opinions on political issues about which she knows little. My favorite quote? “People are very happy right now, and that makes me very, very sad.” The second, on the iPhone 5, was one of the most brilliant sketches on SNL I have ever seen. Featuring Chinese laborers who confront the ‘Tech Experts’ complaining about the new phone’s features (‘it’s too light!), it was a truly scathing critique of ‘First World problems.’

Music: It was an amazing year for artists who used music to push boundaries and make cultural and political commentary, both blatant and subtle.  Very few of these musicians will be nominated for a Grammy this year, but the way they challenged the music industry can not be discounted.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

Pussy Riot inspired protests all over the world in a way that resurrected punk music, and music in general, as a tool for protest.

The fiercest single of the year? Um yeah, that goes to Russian punk feminist band Pussy Riot, obvi. Their single, ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ criticized the Orthodox church’s traditional views on womencalled Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I a ‘suka’ (meaning bitch in the derogatory, not in that cool, ‘reclaiming patriarchy’ way), and called out Putin’s re-election as a fraud. Charged with hooliganism, they faced a prison sentence of up to seven years. Their arrests led to protests all over the world, with people donning masks similar to the ones that the band had worn.  Do I need to say anything more? If you haven’t checked out their brilliant performance, then you can watch it here. And stay tuned for an upcoming documentary on the band, which is heading for Sundance in 2013.

Punk rapper/Performance artist cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

Punk rapper/Performance artist Mykki Blanco cites the Riot Grrls as an influence.

The Riot Grrl: Along those lines, this feminist punk underground movement that emerged in the early 90s seemed to re-emerge in public consciousness in a big way in 2012, because all of a sudden, everyone who was bad-ass was dropping them as an influence. Pussy Riot of course. But then there was Mykki Blanco, rapper/performance artist/drag queen who cited Riot Grrl icon Kathleen Hanna as an influence and described her style as “a mixture of riot grrrl and ghetto fabulousness.” Lena Dunham, creator of the show Girls, appeared on Grantland and mentioned how the provocative nature of her show was influenced by having ‘some Riot Grrl in me.’ And Tavi Gevinson, 16 year old fashion blogger and founder of the teen feminist site Rookie, also expressed her admiration of Hanna’s band Le Tigre and 90’s era teen ‘zines like Sassy that were part of the Riot Grrl movement. I am SO stoked for the upcoming release The Punk Singer, a documentary on Hanna!

Frank Ocean: For all the reasons I listed in this post.

Azealia Banks: If the Grammy’s allowed EPs to be nominated, my girl Azealia would have been tearing it up this year. Her first single ‘212’ was addictive, raunchy, and fun. Her song ‘Fierce‘ would make the list just by virtue of its name, but it really was the chillest blend of hip-hop, house music and 1980s ball culture (see the amazing film Paris is Burning for more on drag balls). But it was ‘Liquorice’ that really did it for me, with her sharp indictment of the fetishization of black women. Feisty and fiercely intelligent, the openly bisexual Banks has stated, “I’m not trying to be the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

Nelly Furtado: Her song ‘Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)’ wasn’t just fierce because she looked hot while walking down the street in stilts. It was fierce because it featured amazing Native American hoop dancers, including champion hoop dancer Tony Duncan, in a way that was respectful and truly representative of the culture. Gwen Stefani, take note.

Solange Knowles: 2012 was a great year for Solange to drop the wannabe-B act and carve out her own niche, as the indie, totally hipster sister with an awesome sense of style and distinct set of pipes. I have watched this video dozens of times, and it never gets old. Featuring a stunning South African setting, fashionable dandies right out of the Congolese Le Sape Society (or Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), and even subtle commentary on the politics of hair and personal choice, the song is whimsical, sweet, and just right.

Marina Abramovic + Anthony and the Johnsons: Two brilliant performance artists collaborated for a patriarchy-smashing, provocative music video called ‘Cut the World’ that you may very well hate. I could only watch it once, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week (oh, and the documentary on Abramovic, The Artist is Present, was totes amazing).

Kitty Pryde: You know when something or someone is fierce, but you can’t really put a finger on it? (Ok, maybe this is a dilemma that only I really face). Well that’s exactly how I feel about Kitty Pryde, whose homemade mumbling rap song ‘Ok Cupid’ simultaneously seems to capture teenage angst while never taking it too seriously. The style is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’ve been playing it constantly since it came out. There is just something about this girl….

Le1f: Being an openly gay rapper in a homophobic industry is tough. 6’3 Wesleyan grad Le1f however, gets it done. Turning gay slurs into “expressions of braggadocio” and walking the fine line of making activist music that’s never preachy, he pretty much re-defines fierce. And his song ‘Wut,’ is seriously addictive. At the very least, you’ll be impressed by his dancing/voguing.

That’s all.

What did you think about my list? Anyone else you would have added? Let me know in the comments below!

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Did Frank Ocean really ‘come out?’

Shortly after the release of his album Channel Orange, Frank Ocean responded to the critics who were questioning his use of male pronouns in some of his songs by revealing on his Tumblr page that his first true love was with a man when he was 19 years old. The internet then blew up, with some fans commentating on ‘what’ sexuality he was to others pondering as to whether it would hurt his album sales (it didn’t). Ocean has garnered accolades for his albums and television performances, like this one on Jimmy Kimmel, and the SNL one below. His voice and sound are like nothing in R&B at the moment, offering something very different from the usual generic dance hits you can hear at the club.

After Ocean released his Tumblr blog, the news media began to refer to him as “the recently Out Frank Ocean.” And that got me thinking, what does it mean to be ‘out?’ When I read Ocean’s sweet description of his first love, I don’t see any announcement of him being gay, and he doesn’t explicitly state that he is bisexual either. In fact, he never once in his blog frames the relationship in an overtly sexual way, saying that the two slept alongside each other, and that they had a ‘peculiar friendship’ that was never fully realized into a relationship.

And that is what is so brilliant about Frank Ocean. He’s a true bohemian, a true artist. He encourages people to ask questions, but never answers them. He uses male and female pronouns interchangeably, but his music  is ultimately universal, like when he touches on the theme of a lost first love in his song, ‘Thinkin Bout You.’ He doesn’t allow himself to be put into a box. He just is.

Just recently, I told a friend that I had a crush on Frank Ocean, and she replied by saying, “Umm….isn’t Frank Ocean gay?” Frank Ocean sings and raps convincingly about women, often in an explicitly gendered way (‘Songs for Women’ is an example, lol), but because of his one love for someone who happened to have a penis, we’re now labeling him as gay? Why are people who identify as straight never asked to defend their sexuality, even though there’s ample evidence that straight people may not really be born that way? (sorry Lady Gaga, I usually think you’re fierce but that song? Not feeling).

It’s not just his sexuality either, it’s in his music. Ocean has complained about the music industry automatically labeling him as an R&B artist because he’s a “black singer who can sing,” even though his music draws on electro, funk, hip-hop, and the introspective musing of an indie songwriter. Ocean himself admitted that he prefers to be referred to as a ‘singer-songwriter’ instead of an R&B singer, because “the former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that.” This human need to put people into neatly defined categories that make us feel more comfortable about our own identity and who we are is perhaps why we label Barack Obama as black, despite his multi-racial identity, and Rashida Jones’ character Karen on The Office as Italian, even though she’s half black, half white. Ambiguity scares the hell out of us. Labels keep us comfortable.

Frank Ocean’s Tumblr blog might prove progressive for a somewhat homophobic hip-hop community (Jay-Z and Beyonce offered their support), but in a way, I hope that he doesn’t become a poster child for the gay community. He’s approached civil rights in his music, like in ‘We all Try,’ where he defends people’s right to marry anyone they love, and for women to have control over their own bodies. I hope that he continues with his brand of secular humanism, and that he doesn’t allow anyone—the media, his fans—to categorize him, to force him to pick a single identity when his own is so fluid.

I doubt he will though. I mean seriously, did anyone catch his performance on SNL last week that was pretty much, the chillest thing ever? Ocean crooned his high notes to perfection on ‘Thinkin Bout You,’ and then while guitarist John Mayer hit a solo, crazy face contortions and all, he walked over and played a video game on the arcade set-up, letting John Mayer take the final spotlight of the performance. And I couldn’t help but think, “Frank Ocean’s not gay or straight. He’s just really. F#cking. COOL”

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