An African woman on a slave ship in Ghana in 1683 lit her tobacco pipe near gun powder on the ship. Fire and gun powder did what they do when combined, and the ship was blown up. Many historical accounts have called this an accident on the woman's part, but what if it wasn't? What if it was a desperate act done on purpose to avoid life as a slave?
That history is written by the victors — and, frequently, the male — means certain perspectives get left out. To truly see and understand history, one needs to widen the lens, and to not make the same mistakes, accurate representation in the media today matters just as much. Misrepresentation, historically and contemporarily, is the topic of this year's Women's History and More programming at Bakersfield College.
"What we're trying to do is challenge the way women are seen in society," said Tina Mendoza, history professor at BC and Taft College and co-chair of the WHAM committee.
Themed "Male Gaze/Female Haze: Historical-Social Constructions of Femininity," the annual monthlong series will include an improv show, a lecture on "The Art of the Self-Portrait" and a panel on "The Evolution of the Selfie: Deconstruction of the Female from 1400 to the Present." Mendoza explained the theme in less academic terms.
"When we post images, women now become a commodity — that's the 'male gaze,'" Mendoza explained. "The 'female haze' is, once an image is out there, we don't know how our image is being interpreted."
The series kicked off last Thursday with "Women in the Middle Passage: Gender, Slavery, and the Problem of Writing History," where New York University professor Jennifer L. Morgan told the story of the would-be slave on the English ship Dorothy who, intentionally or not, blew up the slave ship, as well as the stories of other slaves on the Middle Passage. To fully know the history, both of the Middle Passage and other events, is to see it not just through the lens of men, or the "male gaze," but through the experiences of women as well, Morgan said.
Morgan's lecture was standing-room only, Mendoza said, with both students and community members in attendance. The NYU professor fielded questions for a half hour afterward.
"It was nice to see how BC students were participating in the lecture," Mendoza said. "They had really insightful questions to challenge Professor Morgan."
The events continue throughout the month, mostly at Bakersfield College but one at Taft College and another at BC's Delano campus as well.
The next event is "Male Gaze & Female Haze," a performance by Brian's Beard Improv Theatre Troupe on Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. in BC's Black Box Theatre. The comedians will take a humorous look at society's perceived expectations of women. Adult content and language mean no children will be admitted to this event.
On March 23, Los Angeles-based artist Crystal Galindo will talk about her art for the event, "The Art of the Self-Portrait," which will take place at 2 p.m. at Taft College and at 6:30 p.m. at BC.
Galindo's art focuses on the Chicana experience, diversity, culture and body-type exploration. She will talk about techniques and theories related to the art of the self-portrait. Though much of her work is self-portrait, Galindo has found that many women see themselves in those paintings too, giving them added meaning.
"I started painting myself as a means of self-assurance, exploration, and discovery," Galindo wrote in an email. "As my self-portraits reached a larger audience, I learned that my work was not only a means of self-empowerment, but that other women could be empowered as well. I realized my work was helping others to love themselves unapologetically, and my mission became much more than a study of self."
The documentary "Miss Representation" will be screened at the Delano Campus on March 28. Although the Bakersfield screening has already passed, those not wanting to make the trip to Delano to see the film can find it on Netflix. The documentary explores the impact of media on cultural norms and the negative messages it can send to women and girls. At the Delano screening, religion and philosophy professor Susanne Langham will moderate.
Mendoza is particularly excited about the final event, "The Evolution of the Selfie: Deconstruction of the Female from 1400 to the Present," which she will moderate. Panelists include BC communications professor Andrea Thorson, BC history professor Erin Miller, TC English professor Jessica Grimes and Faheemah Salahud-Din, executive director of First and Always Melanin (or FAAM, a local group meant to uplift and unite the black community through activism).
"Each will discuss how they see women, either historically or contemporarily in the media," Mendoza said. "It's a really diverse group of women. It gives a really nice, broad perspective."
Mendoza expects there to be talk of selfies in the panel event and in Galindo's lecture. While the camera-phone self-portrait is often looked down on or stigmatized as vanity, there can be an element of empowerment in it for women, deciding their story and the way they want to portray themselves, she said.
"When we take selfies as women, we have an understanding of what we're trying to convey, but once it's in cyberspace, it can get misinterpreted," Mendoza said. "That's one of the many reasons why we picked this topic, with the popularity of Snapchat and Facebook and Twitter."
The stories of women throughout history and in current media or social media might seem worlds away but there's a commonality, Mendoza said.
"This misinterpretation of women is not anything new," she said.
Mendoza encouraged students and community members to attend these free events. For the students, there's the opportunity to meet academic professionals from prestigious universities and learn more about life beyond community college, should they decide to pursue their education further, she said. For the community, the events are a chance to see what BC is up to and enjoy what the school gives back. And, of course, for everyone, there's a chance to learn and discuss new ideas.
"I hope it sparks a conversation of the power of social media and maybe causes more dialogue among women about what's being commodified with their images," Mendoza said. "I think the community should see what Bakersfield College is doing and what we're teaching our students. It's a great opportunity to come in and meet the faculty and see how the students are growing."