The Fem: In your essays, you talk about how young girls often understand their sexuality through a sexualized lens, best encapsulated by the good girl/slut dichotomy. Do you think the word slut should be reclaimed?
Hannah Bonner: I think if you had asked me a couple of months ago my response would have been the word “slut” should be reclaimed. But after reading Leora Tanenbaum’s I am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet (2015) I really reconsidered my position on the use of the word. I think what Kathleen Hanna did in the 90s was brilliant when she wrote “slut” across her body as a way of calling out society’s sexualization of young women, but Tanenbaum points out a lot of this irony is lost on the very people who it needs to reach most. And as I learn more about the porn industry, which uses this word ad naseum, I feel more and more this word becomes wrapped up in society’s fundamental concept of who a woman is once she’s labeled a “slut” – it becomes a very narrow, one-dimensional view of a woman, one who is reduced to a sex-object and/or stereotyped based on her ethnicity (sites like “Latina Abuse”) and when a woman is reduced to an object like this, it quickly becomes easier to dehumanize her, to forget she’s a person full of dichotomies, interests, and shades of being.
Fem: What role do you believe media plays in the way women, especially young girls, learn about feminism? In your opinion, is the media’s affect on women an empowering influence or a harmful one?
HB: I recently watched Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Accquaro’s film Miss Representation (2014) and realized just how saturated we are in images of overtly sexualized women, even women who claim to be feminists or come to represent some aspect of the feminist movement. The other day my partner noted Scarlett Johansson’s character in Captain America is an empowered female, yet at the very moment he said that, the camera lingered on her ass, suggesting that even with all her physical prowess, she’s still a sexual object meant to satisfy the male gaze. I felt frustrated she couldn’t just kick ass and be admired for it – that the camera still needed to make us aware of her body, and not just for its athleticism. Jessica Hopper wryly notes this phenomenon in her collection of essays The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015) when she writes, “objectification is a given; the male gaze is what mirrors women’s worth back to them” (200).
I think the media helps young girls learn about feminism to a certain extent, but there still isn’t enough diversity in the way we’re portrayed and that’s where it becomes problematic. Viola Davis was noting that playing the lead role in How to Get Away with Murder “when someone is described as sexual and mysterious and complicated and messy, you don’t think of me. I thought it was a really great opportunity to do something different, to transform into a character that people weren’t used to seeing me in.”  She then goes on to note that after a twelve-year career “I’m playing a maid, I’ve got two lines.” This is 2015 and we’re still dealing with issues of representation and visibility, even when the Internet and media make a variety of options easily accessible. Beyonce’s VMA performance was important because she reclaimed the word “feminist” (which so many people are still afraid to own) and played Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” – but she’s also gotten a lot of heat for the Ike Turner reference in “Drunk in Love.” And the refrain in “Partition” is “I just want to be the girl you like” – so I think girls get a lot of mixed messages through the media that I think often can do more harm than good.
Fem: In what ways do you strive to infuse feminism into your writing? Has feminism always been a primary theme in your writing, or was it something you became passionate about over time?
HB: When my mom turned forty my Dad bought her a subscription to Bust Magazine – I was just starting high school and I loved reading about Le Tigre, Carrie Brownstein, Mindy Kaling, etc. and channeling their lyrics or words into newspaper articles I was writing or essays for school. But for awhile I stopped actively seeking out feminist writing and music – it wasn’t until I saw Sini Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer (2013) that I remembered just how important it is for me to be constantly exploring feminism both through what I consume and what I write. I started being more deliberate about channeling all my frustrations about the Columbia University rape scandal into my writing and the (in)famous feminism craze around Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) into an editorial. So feminism has always been something I’ve been passionate about, but I’ve definitely been more deliberate in the last couple years about addressing it explicitly in my work.
Fem: How do you impart feminist values through teaching?
HB: For four years I was teaching a class called Ancient Studies that focused primarily on texts like Homer’s The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Virgil’s The Aeneid. We were reading all these canonical classics with these heroic male protagonists and so I had to rethink the way I wanted to focus on certain characters because Portia only has one major speech in Julius Caesar and Penelope’s on the sidelines for much of Homer’s epic poem. I started to devote time to supplemental readings like Franz Kafka’s short story “The Silence of the Sirens” or Louise Gluck’s collection Meadowlands or Rebecca Solnit’s editorial in Harper’s Magazine last October “Cassandra Among the Creeps” so that students were getting varied perspectives on the female characters or hearing actual female voices. At first glance when you’re reading Greek Mythology you don’t think much of Apollo’s pursuit of Cassandra, but when you pause you realize her punishment was a result of refusing unwanted sexual advances – she resists her attempted rape. That’s fodder for some great discussion on gender roles and sexual violence. And bringing Sophocles’ “Antigone” into the class also really provided a rich source of various female characters – Antigone and Ismene seem like such opposites, but both are so strong and committed to their particular ideologies. So I’m not sure if I imparted feminist values through teaching so much as brought women more into the forefront of the discussion and readings. I want my female students to see reflections and representations of themselves in the work they’re studying.
Fem: What’s one lesson about feminism that you would want your students to take away from your teaching?
HB: That the damsel in distress trope isn’t the only one you can find in Ancient Literature. Antigone’s willing to die protecting the burial rights of her brothers, Athena is the mastermind behind much of Telemachus and Odysseus’ journeys, Aphrodite is equally as sexually adventurous as Zeus, and Spartan Women were more advanced in some ways than we are currently today. I want girls to be able to see these women and goddesses as heroes also – we don’t need to turn solely to Gilgamesh or Aeneas for examples of heroism or strength.
Hannah Bonner’s poems have appeared in Oyster Boy Review, The Cellar Door, Asheville Poetry Review, The Freeman, The North Carolina Literary Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VII: North Carolina. Her essays and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Asheville Poetry Review, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Immersion Journals, The Fbomb, and Lumen Magazine.