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Patriarchy In Twilight Saga English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5307 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It's easy to observe the expansive reach of the Twilight saga. For starters, it is a cash-cow. To date, the four book series has sold approximately 85 million copies (Grossman) and has claimed the top four spots on USA Today's year-end bestseller list for the years 2008 and 2009 (Minzesheimer and DeBarros, Sellers;'Twilight' Sweeps). Twilight saga merchandise - though sold in multiple retail outlets - single-handedly brought retailer Hot Topic back from the depths of economic gloom and doom in 2008 (Odell). [1] The film adaptation of Twilight grossed $380 million at the box office (more than 10 times what it cost to produce) before earning over $3 million in DVD sales on its first day of release (Armstrong) while New Moon performed even better - earning more than $700 million worldwide before it's DVD release in March 2010 ("The Twilight Saga: New Moon"). Beyond the economic impact, the series inspires Beatlemania-type fanaticism among its growing, primarily female, fan-base. Conduct a Google search for "Twilight fansite," and you'll get almost 1.2 million returns. Furthermore, a November 10, 2008 scheduled appearance in San Francisco by Robert Pattinson (the actor portraying Edward Cullen in the film adaptation of Twilight) was cancelled after he was swarmed by fans. The melee also resulted in a broken nose for one fan, while another lost consciousness ("News from WENN"). Pattinson made the following remarks about the impassioned Twilight fandom: "People know my name, ambush me in public, try to figure out what hotel I'm staying at, ask me to bite them and want to touch my hair. It feels surreal" (Bell).

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These are but a few examples that demonstrate the massive impact the Twilight saga has on audiences. The widespread audience response might cause some to wonder just what it is about Twilight that appeals so much to fans. There are others, like myself, who have chosen to question the impact the Twilight narrative may have on readers' - specifically female readers' - perceptions of culture. While there are many aspects of the Twilight narrative being debated by fans and critics alike, themes of patriarchy and misogyny are of particular interest (Mann; Myers; McClimans and Wisnewski; Housel).

The Twilight Saga is Just Entertainment, Right? Why Should We Care?

Before we can enter into a proper analysis about the impact of patriarchal and misogynistic themes in Twilight, it's first important to understand why we'd want to analyze an artifact of popular culture at all. An older academic view situates popular texts like the Twilight saga as "low" art, or mass produced schlock meant to dupe unsophisticated audiences, like us, into passivity (Horkheimer and Adorno; Benjamin). Postmodern cultural studies scholars, however, see popular culture as an aspect of mass culture (Storey, Cultural Theory), or the values and ideas that members of a society form from common exposure to the same cultural activities, communications media, music and art, etc. Thus, examining popular culture texts exposes how they are used assert social values upon others (Barthes). Female-targeted popular culture artifacts - like the Twilight saga - are sites that are especially worthy of examination since they place the female/feminine experience at the forefront of media critique (McRobbie and McCabe; Modleski; Radway; Ang; Mellencamp). The central concern of feminist media analyses is to examine patriarchal ideology as it relates to power and agency in society (Baumgardner and Richards; Durham; Storey, An Introduction; van Zoonen). Analyzing texts through a feminist lens can serve as a means of exposing and critiquing patriarchy in popular media and, in the process, help to liberate audiences from traditional, stereotypical representations (Durham). It is also a way to understand the concept of gender as a social construction, and posits media texts as critical sites for the negotiation of gender roles.

If we read the Twilight saga closely, we might conclude that it promotes what Cynthia Enloe calls a "Culture of Imminent Danger," which she defines as a culture "sustained by the classical patriarchal caveat that women are in the sort of danger from which only rational men can protect them" (234). One way in which the Twilight saga reinforces a "Culture of Imminent Danger" is seen in the roles of the adult male and female characters in the series. For example, male characters are written into roles or occupations that reflect the role of protector. Charlie, Bella's father, is the police chief in Forks; Carlisle Cullen, Edward's "father," is the most prominent doctor in town; and Billy Black, Jacob's father, is a Quileute tribe elder. Meanwhile, the female characters in Twilight, are symbolically annihilated - that is they are largely trivialized and either "symbolized as child-like adornments who need to be protected or they are dismissed to the protective confines of the home" (Tuchman 8). The role of Bella's mother, Renee, is muted throughout the story - we know only that she has decided to follow her new husband to spring training camp in Florida and that she is "childlike" and "harebrained" (Meyer, Twilight 4). Before Renee remarried, Bella saw herself as her mother's caretaker. Esme, Edward's "mother" is also superficially presented. As the matriarch of the Cullen clan, she is characterized only by "her ability to love passionately" and her strong "mothering instincts" (Meyer, Twilight 307, 368). Bella, too, has been seen by some as falling victim to symbolic annihilation. In the discussion topic "Bella, is she a bad influence for teens?" on the TwilightMoms.com fan site, for example, fans express concern that Bella is a "weak" character because she sees herself less beautiful than Edward, less intelligent, and clumsier than everyone else. Bella, because she is the weak and vulnerable one, is in constant need of care and protection - she is dependent upon Edward for survival.

Indeed, we see what happens to Bella when she is abandoned by the protective influence of Edward - she becomes a "lost moon" (Meyer, New Moon, 201). Later, when Bella and Edward visit Renee in Eclipse, Renee remarks to Bella that her role in her relationship to Edward is that of a "satellite, or something" (Meyer, Eclipse, 68). A satellite can be understood as any object that moves around a larger object. The comparisons of Bella to a moon or other satellite are significant since they symbolically place Edward at the center and Bella in the periphery. This scenario illustrates Edward's role as the actor and Bella's role as the reactor in the Twilight saga. When Edward moves, so does Bella. When Edward leaves, Bella, too, checks out. Likewise, it implies that the orbiter is the least valuable one in the relationship. Take, for example, the Earth's relationship to the Sun. The Earth - as a support system for human life - is important in its own right, but the Sun has far more importance. Without the Sun, the Earth is annihilated. Without Edward, Bella is annihilated.

Because the symbolic annihilation of women in media fails to address the full range of women's real-life goals and potential, it plays an important role in establishing and normalizing ideology that helps those in power (read: men) stay in power. But, Bella exists in a world much different than ours. How much potential can we expect Bella to posses in a situation where she is forced to battle super-human forces? Meyer acknowledges this when responding to critics. She says:

There are those who think Bella is a wuss. There are those who think my stories are misogynistic-the damsel in distress must be rescued by strong hero… I am not anti-female, I am anti-human. I wrote this story from the perspective of a female human because that came most naturally, as you might imagine. But if the narrator had been a male human, it would not have changed the events. When a human being is totally surrounded by creatures with supernatural strength, speed, senses, and various other uncanny powers, he or she is not going to be able to hold his or her own. Sorry. That's just the way it is. We can't all be slayers. Bella does pretty well I think, all things considered (Meyer, The Story).

I'm willing to buy Meyer's explanation - to an extent. But, just because the Twilight saga narrative is set against a backdrop of fantasy does not mean its capabilities for reinforcing the oppressive ideology that exists in our real-world go unrealized. For example, Bella only becomes "strong" by conforming to the masculine standard put forth by Edward (that is, by becoming a vampire). Of course, Edward cannot reverse himself to his human form, but when Bella changes for Edward, it legitimizes a longstanding cultural norm of women adjusting their desires to accommodate those of her male partner. [2] As with the "satellite" analogy, this aspect of the Twilight saga highlights Edward's superiority over Bella.

Edward Is The World's Best Predator, Isn't He? Everything About Him Invites You In.

When readers buy a romance novel, they are being sold more than just the book. The ideology of romance - exemplified by lessons of gender subjectivities and sexual difference in a patriarchal structure embedded in the patriarchal and misogynistic themes present in romance genre - is also being sold (Brown; Cooper). The romance narrative of the Twilight saga teaches us that if social order is to be successful and maintained, then the most notable compromises will have to be made by women. This lesson establishes, then, that if women wish for patriarchy to be neutralized in society they will have to be the ones to do it. We see this perspective manifested in the online comments of several readers - comments that largely are critical of Bella for failing to overcome the patriarchal constraints present in the Twilight saga (see for example beka; Jost; North; Seltzer; or any of the myriad of fan posts on TwilightMoms, Twilight Lexicon, and other fansites). However, men and women exist together in society and, as such, any fair reading of the Twilight saga would also be looking at Edward's responsibility in perpetuating oppressive ideas about gender roles in human society.

Perhaps the most profound way that Edward Cullen reinscribes an oppressive patriarchal ideology is that he demonstrates the classic signs of a batterer. Many readers might disagree with my assessment by pointing out that Edward is motivated by his intense desire to protect Bella and he only has her best interests in mind. The framing of Edward's actions as being in Bella's best interests is precisely what makes them so dangerous. This viewpoint normalizes and legitimizes masculine power over females for the reader.

As for how Edward demonstrates signs of a batterer, one need only refer to the criteria established by nationally known domestic violence trainer and consultant Lydia Walker. As part of her "Getting a Firm Foundation" training, Walker has developed a list of seventeen behaviors seen in people who abuse their partners. Walker warns that "if the person has several (three or more) of these behaviors, a strong potential exists for physical violence - the more signs a person has, the more likely the person is a batterer." Edward exhibits at least seven of these behaviors (in varying degrees) at different points in the Twilight saga. [3] These are:

Jealousy - Of course, the tension between Edward and Jacob is at the forefront of the story, but Edward expresses his displeasure in many of Bella's potential suitors, In Twilight, for example we are most acutely aware of his dislike for Mike Newton. Edward tells Bella that when Mike asked her to the school dance, he "was surprised by the flare of resentment, almost fury" that he felt (Meyer, Twilight 303). Edward is surprised by his feelings, remarking that jealousy is "so much more powerful that I would have thought. And irrational!" (304).

Controlling behavior - Walker defines controlling behavior as those actions that are attributed to a concern for a woman's safety and well being. We see one example of Edward's controlling behavior in Twilight when he follows Bella and her friends to Port Angeles. Walker also warns that controlling behaviors are frequently manifested in the abuser's lack of willingness to let a woman make personal decisions. We see Edward's controlling behavior reappear later in the same chapter when he tells Bella when she needs to eat (even when she insists that she isn't hungry), and again when Bella is recovering in the hospital in the last chapter - Edward calls for the nurse to administer pain medication to Bella even though she is clear that she does not need them (Meyer, Twilight 477). In Eclipse, Edward's attempts to control Bella are particularly disturbing as he continuously attempts to prevent Bella from visiting Jacob. First, he disconnects the cables to her car battery. Later, he manipulates Alice into participating in a kidnapping plot designed to keep Bella away from La Push. When he finally agrees to let her go, he does so only if he can take her there and pick her up himself. Perhaps the most appalling example, though, is in Breaking Dawn when Edward attempts to arrange for an abortion for Bella without any discussion from her or her permission.

Quick involvement - "Most battered women dated or knew the abuser for less than six months (many for less than three months) before they were married, living together, or engaged. An abuser comes on like a whirlwind" (Walker). Chapter one of Twilight tells the reader that Bella moves to Forks in January. It is not until March that Bella and Edward decide to become "a couple" (Twilight - Chapter 10). By Prom in May, she's ready to give up her mortality for Edward (Twilight - Epilogue). In fact, the entire story only spans two years.

Unrealistic expectations - Walker characterizes unrealistic expectations in terms of possessiveness and states that abusive people will expect their partner to meet all of their needs. At one point, Edward tells Bella that he is "anxious … to be away from [her]," and that he gets "distracted … worrying about [her]" (Meyer Twilight 188-9). Edward is relentless in keeping Bella close to him, unrealistically worried that some great harm will come to her. Edward tells Bella: "You are my life now" (314).

Blames others for feelings - "The abuser will tell the woman 'you make me mad', 'you're hurting me by not doing what I tell you', 'I can't help being angry'" (Walker). The abuser is, of course, responsible for what he thinks and feels, but will use his feelings to manipulate his partner. One example of Edward acting in this way can be found in the meadow scene in Twilight. Prior to this point, Edward has made his desire for Bella known, but it is not until they are in the meadow that he drops his mask to show Bella the true extent of the danger he poses to her. He's frenzied as he explains all the ways in which he could easily destroy her, and then blames Bella when he feels he has lost control (Meyer, Twilight 263-5). Later, when Bella and Edward kiss before meeting the rest of the Cullens for a game of baseball, he forcefully pulls himself off of her when he loses control and proclaims: "Damn it, Bella! … You'll be the death of me, I swear you will" (363).

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Walker warns women to look out for "sudden" mood changes in which one minute the abuser is really nice and the next minute he's exploding.  She explains that explosiveness and moodiness are typical of people who abuse their partners since these behaviors can intimidate and frighten the victim and are reflections of the abuser's use of threats and manipulation to establish and maintain power and control. The entire first part of Twilight (certainly until Bella is rescued in Port Angeles by Edward in Chapters eight and nine) is focused on Edward's odd behavior towards Bella that vacillates between amusement and pure contempt. At one point, his behavior causes Bella to say to Edward, "I can't keep up with you," and question him as to whether he has a "multiple personality disorder" (Meyer, Twilight 84, 82). Even after Edward makes his true feelings for Bella known and while he continues to keep his emotions in-check around Bella, he's prone to the occasional swing.

Any force during a conflict - "This may involve a batterer holding a woman down, physically restraining her from leaving a room, or pushing/shoving her" (Walker). In Chapter five of Twilight, Bella faints during a blood-typing exercise in her Biology class. Edward convinces the school secretary to excuse them from class so that he can escort her safely home. Bella relents, happy to get out of class, but is fully intent on seeing herself home. When Bella moves to the driver's seat of her truck, Edward physically restrains her by pulling the back of her jacket, telling her, "Where do you think you're going?" (Meyer, Twilight 103). Later, Bella is restrained again, this time by Edward's "brother" Emmett (under Edward's direction) as they rush to flee James after the baseball game. While trying to decide how to counter James' inevitable attack, Edward decides to take Bella away from Forks. When she protests, Edward orders Emmett to secure her by her wrists and forcibly strap her into the harness of the Jeep they are using to escape (381).

Of course, not everyone will see it this way. Some will see Edward as he is presented - as the ideal, romantic, doting boyfriend - and rationalize that his actions are justified because they were enacted with Bella's best interests in mind and because Edward, as a vampire, has physical and mental capabilities that Bella, as a mortal, does not possess. But, we cannot let Edward off the hook just because he is a vampire and not a living, breathing person. While personhood is certainly linked to humanity, Nicolas Michaud suggests that one does not necessarily need to be human to be a person: "Personhood should be granted to those who demonstrate certain qualities such as consciousness and self motivated activity; those who demonstrate certain capabilities such a practical reason and affiliation should also not be denied the ability to flourish if they so choose" (45). Edward's respect for the human soul, his choice to drink animal blood instead of human blood, and his attempt to assimilate into Forks' society demonstrate his desire to pass and be accepted as a person and not a vampire. Therefore, if Edward wants to enjoy the benefits of personhood in our society, we have to demand of him the same standards that we would expect from any other male in it regardless of any supernatural power he may possess.

There are those that will argue that even though Edward exhibits these tendencies, he does not cross the line to become a full-fledged physical abuser. However, while physical violence is one method by which men control women and maintain their supremacy, patriarchy does not need to be enforced by using violence alone. In this case, Edward's actions create an environment where Bella cannot love Edward without loathing herself. He demonstrates that, despite the claim to the contrary, he is actually very far from perfect. Yet, Bella still sees herself as subordinate to him. She consistently reminds the reader - and herself - that she is not good enough for Edward. Because the Bella/Edward relationship is presented as fated and Edward's actions are justified as being for the benefit of Bella's safety, we permit Bella to respond in ways that would concern us if we saw it manifested in others close to us. We condone her continued disregard for her own personal safety. We allow her to isolate herself from her family and friends. We accept her explanations for her repeated injuries. Bella literally gives up her life for "love." Edward's controlling behavior coupled with Bella's justification of it creates a situation in which the female's subordination becomes not only acceptable to readers, but rational as well.

Can Romance Narratives be Anything But Oppressive?

The abuse narrative present in the Twilight saga becomes especially problematic when viewed with an understanding of the romance genre. Romance as a genre is frequently characterized by the quest for an ideal heterosexual love relationship between a strong, dashingly handsome, young man and a beautiful, vulnerable, self-sacrificing young woman (Burnett and Beto). These qualities of romance stories are at the forefront of the Twilight saga. While these aspects of romance can be read as contributing to the perpetuation of patriarchal ideas about gender roles, romance can also be interpreted as the ultimate feminist genre. Catherine Asaro reminds us that the plots of most romance stories are centered on the desires of the heroine; her values are given priority and she always ends up getting what she wants. Bella spends four books telling us, the readers, that she wants to achieve immortality as a vampire and spend eternity with Edward while still being able to keep her best friend - and Edward's rival suitor - Jacob around. Breaking Dawn sees Bella fighting for her right to bear a child. She ultimately achieves all of this.

Asaro also asserts that romance novels are unique in that they adhere to the female gaze. Laura Mulvey's concept of the "male gaze" rests in the assumption that the audience is forced to view the action and characters of a filmic text through the perspective of a heterosexual man. Examples of its manifestation in filmic texts are seen in camera shots focusing on the curves of the female body, cleavage, or other sexualized positioning of women. In romance novels, however, the male form is the one under the heaviest scrutiny - its features extolled upon in great detail. In fact, the female heroine is frequently described with just enough detail to humanize her, while leaving enough information out of the picture so that the reader might insert herself into it. In Twilight, Bella frequently compares Edward to the mythical Greek god Adonis. Her description of his facial features is specific. We see Edward, through her eyes - as perfect and angular with high cheekbones, a strong jawline, and a straight nose and full lips. His hair, which is always messy, is an unusual, eye-catching shade of bronze while his eyes are topaz. Bella, on the other hand, is described to the reader far more simply - she has long brown hair and brown eyes.

Texts presented through the female gaze are significant in two distinct ways. For one, that the heroine is presented as an "everywoman" can be seen as empowering to female readers who are often only presented with representations of "female characters that fade into the background unless they have qualities deemed 'important'" (Asaro). Readers are able to recognize aspects of themselves in the narrative. Also, it legitimizes female sexuality and debunks the myth that women don't notice men in "that" way. Physical attractiveness is just as important for females as it is for males. Female sexuality is further legitimized in romance in that the heroine is rarely punished for engaging in sexual acts and can frequently be seen as the initiator of such acts. In Twilight, it is Bella who is eager to consummate the relationship she has with Edward and Edward who is resistant to give in without being married.

Still, there is plenty in the saga to support the charges that the Twilight narrative is potentially harmful. Even though Edward never crosses the line into domestic violence, his behavior is still troublesome since the heavy consumption of romance narratives can, over time, influence readers' interpretations of appropriate behavior for men and women in romantic relationships. In The Killing Screens, George Gerbner discusses his cultivation theory, which was developed to help explain the cumulative and overarching impact repeated media exposure has on the way we see the world in which we live. It emphasizes the effects of media consumption on the attitudes rather than the behavior of audiences. In short, heavy exposure is seen as 'cultivating' attitudes which are more consistent with the world of media than with the everyday world. Gerbner argues that media cultivates attitudes and values which are already present in a culture, normalizing and reinforcing more dominant values, while making other, more underlying ideas more salient. In a society such as ours where masculine ideology is already privileged; where we already have historical struggles with creating safe, egalitarian spaces for women; and where we already struggle with violence and intimidation, Gerbner's theory tells us that extended consumption of the over-representation of patriarchy in the Twilight saga can normalize and legitimize acts of oppression that we might witness or experience in our own lives. When abuse is made to be fun and entertaining, we run the risk rationalizing and justifying it and fail to see the tragedy in it when we come across it in our real lives.

Viewing the Twilight saga through this lens moves the conversation from the question of, "What are romance narratives like those in Twilight doing to women?" to "What are women doing with them?" Romance has been, perhaps, one of the most denigrated popular culture genres (Asaro; Wethington; Holmes). Common complaints include the lack of diversity and scope of romance narratives (typically seen as a result of the demands of powerful commercial forces and publishers looking to quickly churn out formulaic narratives that have previously proven to be profitable); and the genre's consistent reliance on conservatively rigid messages about race, gender and male-female relationships; and the objectification of human bodies in explicit, almost pornographic, sexual representations (Wethington). Not everyone buys into these criticisms. Feminist media scholar Janice Radway was one of the first to take seriously the pleasure that women readers consistently seem to find in romance. According to her influential text Reading the Romance, women use romance as a way to set up a quiet space for themselves. They not only vicariously enjoy status positions and spaces of nurturing through the books that they do not enjoy in the real world, but romance stories also provide a fictional space in which readers can rehearse and make sense of their individual identity and role in society (Radway; Burnett and Beto). The role romance plays in preparing individuals how to behave in their public lives is even greater for young readers than what it may be for adults. Girls will use romances as an alternative to a romantic relationship when one has not yet presented itself. Romance novels act as safe spaces to gain insight on how to meet boys, what kinds of things they might say to them, and what dating is like. For them, romance novels act as beginner's manual for adolescence (Cherland and Edelsky; Christian-Smith; Willinsky and Hunniford)

Audiences appear to carry the lessons and desires cultivated through repeated exposure to romance narratives in their youth with them throughout their lives. For example, a generation ago, at the height of the coming-of-age teen romance flick, there emerged two archetypes for the ideal boyfriend - Jake Ryan and Lloyd Dobler. Jake Ryan, of course, was the cool, super-popular, super-rich, Porsche-driving, way-too-hot-to-be-in-high-school hunk who caught the "Plain Jane" Samantha Baker's eye in the film "Sixteen Candles." Lloyd Dobler, on the other hand, was an unpretentious, earnest, boombox-hoisting everyman who was thoroughly devoted to the super-smart Diane Court in the film "Say Anything." It's been more than 25 years since "Sixteen Candles" was in theaters and 20 years since "Say Anything" was released, yet women coming of age in the 1980s still find themselves longing for their Jake or their Lloyd - but, not finding him. (Stuever, Real Men; Steuver, What I Did). There is evidence that the same desire audiences have for a relationship with Jake and Lloyd also exists for Edward Cullen, regardless of the age of the audience member. For example, on the discussion forum for the TwilightTeens.com fansite, for example, one can find a multitude of discussion threads in which young fans deliberate questions like "On a scale of 1 to 10, how lucky is Bella Swan [to be with Edward Cullen]?"; "Could you see yourself dating a guy like Edward?"; or "What do you like about Edward?" Additionally, Emily Reynolds' interviews and surveys with female adult readers of the Twilight saga revealed that it was Bella with whom readers most frequently identified and whose behaviors they most saw in themselves, making it easy for the reader to slip into Bella's shoes. This identification most frequently manifests itself in a desire to be romantically linked with Edward. According to one of Reynolds' participants: "I would leave my husband for someone like that" (30). The difference, of course, is that seeking out a Jake Ryan or a Lloyd Dobler - though destined to end in disappointment - is not likely to meet with a violent end, though seeking out an Edward Cullen might.

Is it all bad?

It is not my goal to vilify the Twilight saga. It is okay to enjoy things that are entertaining and fun, but we should not dupe ourselves into believing that our entertainment media does not also assist in formulating our ideas about our culture. Popular media help shape a worldview in audiences that re-inscribes dominant positions of power and authority (Althusser; Gitlin; Hall), which in Eurocentric cultures like ours is "white, patriarchal capitalism" (Fiske qtd. in Meyers 7). Patriarchy is the primary oppressor of females in a society (Firestone; Greer; Millett). Since patriarchy does not necessarily operate as an explicit, perceivable reality (meaning, we don't always recognize it when we see it), we must review the aspects of our culture - pop culture included - that perpetuate patriarchal ideology and cause it to be normalized. What are, in fact, dangerous ideas that devalue the female in society are too frequently seen as legitimate choices in the Twilight saga - choices made in the name of "true love" or in the face of supernatural forces. When presented through these lenses, Bella and Edward's relationship is seen as romantic and desirable when in any other world it would be destructive.

We have to remember that patriarchy, while notable for marginalizing females, does not operate free from feminine influence (Enloe). Social systems are not made solely of men; women are also contributing members. As such, a patriarchal society relies on the participation of all members - men and women - to endure. Therefore, as destructive as Edward is in the Twilight narrative, the real danger exists when we fail to confront patriarchy and oppression when we encounter it. It is advantageous that Twilight appeals to readers across several generations because it can be used as a framework for encouraging discourse between adults and youth about how female oppression occurs in society. Only future analysis will tell if these conversations are happening. Let's hope that they are.


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