Sex & Dating
The two talk intersectional feminism, reproductive rights and destigmatizing conversations around sexual health.
by Cecile Richards and Rowan Blanchard
19 February 2016
The two talk intersectional feminism, reproductive rights and destigmatizing conversations around sexual health.
Back in August, Rowan Blanchard posted an impressively thoughtful essay to Instagram about the importance of intersectionality in feminism, catapulting the 14-year-old Disney Channel star of Girl Meets World into becoming a rising voice of her generation. Her poise, eloquence, and commitment to promoting equality and understanding are traits also shared by Cecile Richards. The president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America was recently in the spotlight for the way she intelligently and gracefully testified before Congress during a House hearing that included accusations and bullying from GOP lawmakers attempting to cut federal funding from the organization. A few months after these events, Richards and Blanchard got together to discuss why it's more important than ever that young women receive information about reproductive health, and why despite this fraught political landscape, there's a lot of reason for hope.
Rowan Blanchard: I think especially for people my age or a little older than me, sexual health is always something that's used against them, or in sex ed classes, it's talked about from a male perspective, and it's never something that's in favor of a woman.
Cecile Richards: That only continues.
Blanchard: Seriously, I know. And I know so many of my friends who are like, "I come from a very conservative family that literally does not believe in any of this, in being able to have access to any of this," and they're like, "I can drive, and I know where my nearest Planned Parenthood is... I can go there and have a non-judgmental place where it's safe."
Richards: I'm curious about people your age, because it's so important that we move and change to be there for young people. What is it you feel that they need from Planned Parenthood? Or what do they need in their life that Planned Parenthood could actually be there for?
Blanchard: Like I said before, it does feel like when we talk about sexual health in girls, especially girls that are teens, that are still figuring out their bodies and all of these new things, it's so shameful. People seriously shame them for it. Girls are getting their first periods, and immediately it's an embarrassing thing that you just want to hide, rather than being a normal thing that you talk about. And now that you guys have such a big social media influence, I think that has definitely affected that. Because people have access to the Internet, especially teens. And so it's easier to go on the Planned Parenthood website and check under the facts, like, "Is this normal?" because often times it can be embarrassing. I was raised in a household where I can ask my parents things and it's not embarrassing, but I didn't realize until recently that a lot of kids can't do that, because it's embarrassing for them. So I think your impact on the Internet has had a huge effect on people my age, because it's anonymous and it's safe.
Cecile Richards. This and splash photo by David Urbanke. Hair and makeup by Clelia Bergonzoli
Richards: You're right. But I'm kind of shocked to hear you say that, even for your generation, these are still issues that people are uncomfortable about. I know growing up in Texas that it was really uncomfortable because usually the coaches were teaching sex ed, and they were super uncomfortable, but it shouldn't be that way anymore. We actually are in beta testing for a new app to help young girls and young women who are starting their period to track their period, learn about birth control, so that when they need it they actually understand how it works. And so I'm hoping we can put more things actually on folks' mobile phones. They can carry it around with them. What we heard from young women is that that's what they really wanted -- to understand how birth control works because there's so little information out there.
Blanchard: I wanted to ask you because you grew up in Texas, which is typically thought of as a more conservative state when it comes to health rights, how did you sustain a firm belief that a woman is entitled to reproductive rights and taking control of her own body?
Richards: Well, I was lucky. Like your family, I grew up in a really progressive family, my parents were total outliers. I grew up in Dallas, and my parents were against everything. And my mom, who was in those days what we called a housewife, which was very typical, raised four kids, and she didn't really work outside the home until she ran for office. And then once she became political, she was really into the women's movement. I think it was just something I was raised with. But I also think that the more you have a chance at an early age to take a stand, no matter how supportive your parents are, there's a moment at which -- and I'm sure there was a moment for you -- when you say, "I just have to do that myself." And then once you do, if it feels good, and feels right… I've always gotten energy from that. And I tell this to our young activists, that there's a lot of times that everyone is actually thinking the same thing you are, but either no one knows how to say it, or they're not quite ready to say it, and then you say it and they go, "I'm so glad you said that." That must happen to you all the time.
Blanchard: Yeah, I've noticed that. I mean, obviously I'm not afraid to tackle things, because I feel like I've read the news my whole life, and at one point it's like, "I don't really want this to be happening." I feel like I made the connection between the political as personal, and knowing that those things actually affect me. When I started talking about them on social media, I noticed that with teenage girls [and insecurity], it comes from a deep place of shame about their bodies, and everything that they're taught from a very young age. I think the new wave of women on social media who are allowing themselves to just be themselves is opening doors for a lot of young girls who wouldn't otherwise have that kind of affirmation to be allowed to be themselves, which is cool.
Richards: I hope that's right.
Blanchard: I hope so.
Richards: Social media is an awesome thing, particularly because women's stories are told. But I recognize that it's also a place where there's a lot of shaming. How do we break through that? I think that if you guys can figure it out and if your generation isn't willing to put up with the judging and, frankly, old-fashioned sexism, that's going to be the biggest single culture change in this country.
Blanchard: I was just talking to my mom about this. I find that I'll be talking to a room of grown men and somebody will say something that I don't agree with, but I almost shut down my opinion really quickly because I think "Oh, he's a man, I just have to be really careful with that." And I feel like there's this male anger complex that women are almost submissive to, in order to allow that person more room.
Richards: That's kind of how I felt when I had to go testify against Congress this fall. It was kind of a classic situation where I felt like there were a lot of angry men. The only way they knew how to engage was to be mean and angry and dismissive, and cut you off. And so there's a part of me that wants to engage, because it's not like I want to get shut down. But on the other hand, I feel like they're looking for a fight more than they're looking for actually getting to a place of "OK, we can move forward," and, though I hate to say it, I think we all have to pick our battles. You don't want to let anyone just run over you, but you also don't want to feed that kind of behavior that is really not helpful.
Blanchard: When I name my role models, it's women like you and women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and people like that who have really taken something and driven it forward. Who inspired you when you were my age?
Richards: Well my mom [former Governor of Texas, Ann Richards] definitely did -- she and a lot of women of her generation who were in the public sphere. Another woman who doesn't get enough recognition is Barbara Jordan. She was a congresswoman from Houston, Texas and was one of the first prominent African-American leaders in Congress. She was fearless. So there were women in my life that absolutely spoke truth to power in a way that is still very hard. Now, I think, I'm mostly inspired by the young women I see who didn't have any of the advantages and privilege that I did growing up of having a family that was totally supportive. I was just thinking of this young woman Sadie Hernandez, who is a college student in Texas and who held her own protest outside the Governor's Mansion when Planned Parenthood was cut out of the breast cancer screening program – which I can't even believe I'm saying those words. The thought that anyone would want to not let women get breast cancer screening is incredible -- but Sadie really just took it on herself, she didn't have a lot of support…
Blanchard: Yeah, she didn't ask for permission…
Richards: Right. She just did it. What keeps me excited and inspires me is to see a whole new generation of young people who aren't waiting to be asked, they're just doing it.
Blanchard: And I feel like social media has also entitled a lot of people to that right.
Richards: Yes. And telling stories that no one ever would have told in my generation. Whether it was their own sexual health stories, their own things that have concerned them, the issues they've dealt with as a woman. It can be a really democratizing force.
Rowan Blanchard. This and splash photo by Mayan Toledano. Styling by Zara Mirkin. Top by Me and You
Richards: What do you think about young men your age? I feel like they've got to be just as interested in these issues.
Blanchard: I think they are, and I think they talk about it just as little as girls do, because a guy doesn't want to tell another guy that he has a question about his sexual health. I feel like there's this macho stigma, where if you haven't lost your virginity by the time you're like, fifteen, it's like you're this or that… and I feel like we need to dissolve that whole hyper-masculine macho complex and just make it something that boys and girls can talk about to each other, and make it so young men can talk about it just as much as young women can, because it's not something that only applies to women.
Richards: Right. I think you're exactly right. What all the studies show is that if young people, at an appropriate age, begin learning about their bodies and are able to have a normal, open conversation, they're actually much less likely to get in trouble for themselves, or to get in a situation that they don't want to be in. And I feel like we're also long overdue for having the kinds of conversations young women are having around issues of sexual assault and consent. It seems to me if teenagers can start learning and talking about these issues before they get to college, we could be doing a better job of making this a normal conversation, with young men as well as young women.
Blanchard: Exactly. If you make things like Planned Parenthood and sexual health no longer taboo or scary to talk about, I feel like that would lead to much less unwanted pregnancies with teens. But now when girls talk about these topics, they're called "sluts," or something like that.
Richards: Which is incredible to me…
Blanchard: There's just not a way out! It's like, if you know about your body and you're educated about how to take care of it, you're "a slut." And if you're not, then you could accidentally get pregnant or something like that.
Richards: Especially if you don't feel like you have the agency to actually speak up for yourself.
Blanchard: And I hope that those girls and men that don't feel like they have a safe space to talk about it with their parents, or maybe their sex ed teacher isn't really covering things that need to be talked about, I hope that they're using your guys' Internet space to answer questions that they would maybe feel embarrassed to talk about.
Richards: Right, that's definitely the idea. So, you've written a lot about feminism -- what does it mean to you? How did you identify as a feminist?
Blanchard: Feminism to me means equality. And I feel like feminism over the years has progressed into an umbrella term that is not necessarily equality between men and women, but it's also equality between people of all genders, straight people, gay people, and stuff like that. I started calling myself a feminist when I saw Emma Watson's speech at the UN.
Richards: That was huge…
Blanchard: I was looking for some kind of validation, because whenever I had heard that word, it was always used in a way that was, like, "oh, she's a feminist," like, you know, aggressive. Like somebody is screaming down your throat. Always to me, the word feminist felt synonymous with anger, screaming, women who were unlikable... Like men hated these women who were feminists. And so when Emma did her speech, she was like, "I'm a feminist," and I was like, "Whoa!" Like, "I can say that." Because that's something that I believe in. And then when you talk about feminism it gets layered and layered, but at the end of the day, the definition is equality.
I wrote about intersectional feminism because I don't think feminism has always been inclusive of people of all races and genders. If you look at the history of it, it's not that inclusive of people who are African-American, people who are non-binary and who don't identify as a gender. I always felt like it was very beneficial for white women and that's it, so I feel like the more intersectional feminism can be and the more that we recognize that I'm not going to experience the same type of sexism as someone who's disabled, and as somebody who's African American, and as someone who isn't from the same financial situation as me -- if we acknowledge that and we dissect it one by one, and recognize all of those people, it's going to be much easier than just being like, "equality!" Because you want everything to be equal, but you also have to realize that it's going to be harder for some people to be equal than it is for other people to be equal. With white women, it's seventy-eight cents to the dollar. But then when you break it down and compare how much women of color make to the dollar, it gets less and less.
Richards: It's so great that someone at your age actually sees it. I think that at Planned Parenthood we actually see that a lot, this really exciting conversation... if what we're really looking for is equity in this world, there's a lot of reasons why folks don't experience equality. And it is gender, and it is race, and it is income, it is geography. So many things about your life. And I do think that's an exciting sort of wave, and the liberal justice community has been there a long time before the rest of the world, but I think it helps make this movement so much stronger. To be able to be part of a movement at Planned Parenthood that is recognizing all of the barriers to equity that we have so that we can work collectively to dismantle them, it's really huge.
Blanchard: It's been cool for me to watch these girls who follow me. There was this girl from Pakistan who tweeted me, and she was like, "I practically have no rights in my country. I couldn't talk about any of the things you're talking about without facing prison charges. But just the fact that you're saying something about it makes me have a conversation with my mom, and my mom goes and has a conversation with one of her friends, and it carries on." And I was like, "I didn't even think about it on those terms!" I never thought that a young girl in Pakistan would be reading what I'm writing.
Richards: What a radical act that is.
Blanchard: Yeah, when I read that I was like, "Whoa! Chills!"
Richards: I was curious too, in your show, are there any of the storylines that jump out to you that are really important for young women, and that you're really particularly proud of?
Blanchard: Yeah, we just did an episode that premiered called "Girl Meets STEM," and it was about how there's much lower statistics of women in science and math, especially in their teens. And the example we did, it was like an experiment with a marble. And the girls only had to drop the marble, and the boys had to do all the work. We kind of broke it down into those terms, and it was kind of about recognizing that, as a young woman, you're going to experience stuff like this, and that people might not even be doing it consciously because it's been so embedded into history. It's not like they're purposely doing it to undermine you, it's like they're doing it because that's what they're expected to do. And the episode was about recognizing that and being like, "People are treating me differently, just because of my sex." And how you can change that, and how you can recognize that and make people see that.
Richards: That's great.
Blanchard: You want what's on TV for girls to be something that's positive, and not demeaning to them. And I'm happy that I can be on a show that's marketed to people who are about 9-15, a show that they can watch that is positive. And that they don't do something less because they're a girl, or something like that. But they're also going to recognize that they will face sexism, and that they aren't going to let it rule them. Crossing those boundaries in media, and how we're represented in movies and TV, that affects your subconscious.
Richards: Giving young people the courage and support to speak up for themselves, to feel confident in themselves, is just so huge, and if they do that at an early age, I think it helps women as they deal with other issues later on, because it doesn't really stop. I just have such hope for your generation.