(As featured in the Autumn issue of Enhance Magazine)
After securing an interview with Melinda Tankard Reist, I was thrilled. You know when there’s someone you really respect, who expresses everything you’re thinking, someone you really want to meet one day? Well for me, that was Melinda Tankard Reist.
So why do I respect her so much? Because Melinda is a woman who, in a society muffled by political correctness, is not afraid to speak out. Not only is she an advocate, author and social commentator, but also a wife and a mother.
When I asked her what she hoped her advocacy would achieve in the long run, she jokingly replied, “Well I want to overturn the world. Is that too much to ask?”
Melinda is passionate about ensuring that women and children are treated with dignity and respect. She works to change cultural mindsets on sexualisation which, she says, are having a negative effect on children as well as women, men and society as a whole. Melinda is the author of three books. The latest, Getting Real: challenging the sexualisation of girls (Spinifex Press 2009) of which she is the Editor, features commentary by prominent authors, academics, a psychologist and advocates for girls on the subject of the sexualisation of children. She has appeared on ABC’s Q&A, is a regular guest on Channel Seven’s Morning Show, writes for a range of newspapers and online opinion forums and has a highly influential blog (www.melindatankardreist.com.au). Melinda is a popular speaker and travels around the world, speaking at schools, youth events, mental health seminars and women’s ministry events in churches. She works hard to highlight advertising campaigns which objectify women’s bodies, fashion houses creating sexualised children’s clothing and the exposure of our children to inappropriate material (such as porn magazines placed at a child’s eye-level in newsagencies). She is determined to inspire others to join her in taking action, hence her latest venture; Collective Shout (but I’ll get to that later).
Born and raised on the family farm in country Victoria, Melinda’s activism began in her teens, when she attended a youth camp. She was given some information on abortion and the harm it causes women and babies and became mobilised. She was later awarded a journalism scholarship to study journalism in the US where she became involved with some women-centred pro-life groups, including Feminists for Life. On her return she worked as a freelance journalist and helped set up a housing and support service for women who were pregnant and without support. “I believe it is one thing to call yourself pro-life. It’s another thing to actually do something to address the conditions that compel women into abortion,” she said. Melinda wrote Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief after Abortion (DuffySnellgrove 2000) which shines a light on the emotional and physical harm caused by abortion.
Over the years, Melinda has branched out and works to address a range of things which attack the wellbeing and freedom of women both in Australia and internationally, such as violence, objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls. She is named in the Australian Who’s Who of Women and the World’s Who’s Who of Women.
Melinda is determined to restore to women their right to be who they were meant to be. Our right to be protected from the physical and emotional harm caused by abortion, our right not to be treated as sexual objects and our children’s right to enjoy a childhood free from the dictates of a consumerist, sexualised culture.
I asked Melinda what she thought of feminism. “A famous woman once said, ‘Recognising the reality of women is what makes you a feminist,’” she responded. “Well, recognising the reality of women on a global scale and the fact that they are treated as second class citizens in most parts of the world is what made me an advocate for them. And when people ask why I care about these issues, my response is, ‘Why don’t you?’”
Raising her voice on behalf of women has come at a cost. “I am away from home a lot,” she explained. “I remember once, a taxi arrived to take me somewhere and my youngest said, ‘There’s Mummy’s car’. When I worked at Parliament House the kids used to call it ‘Mummy’s Office!’”
Melinda’s children have proved a great source of information but sometimes they’re reluctant to cooperate when it comes to their friends.
“My daughter who was 8 at the time had a little friend over. This friend was really into Lady Gaga,” she recalled. “I wanted to know more so I started asking her questions about Lady Gaga. My daughter whispered into her friend’s ear, ‘Careful what you say, she’ll use it in her next book!’”
After watching their mother fight for justice, Melinda’s children have a good understanding that what their mother does will improve their lives. Melinda’s oldest daughter is, at age 19, already following in her footsteps and is currently in India, volunteering in village schools and orphanages.
Despite the cost, Melinda has been blessed. Two of Melinda’s children were born during her time as Media Advisor for Senator Brian Harradine. “The Senator would help look after them and take them for walks at lunch time, he even had a cot in his office,” Melinda said. “I was able to continue breastfeeding. A lot of women don’t get that so I was very lucky.”
Melinda’s husband was at home full time with the children throughout most of their early years. These days, Melinda works from home which means she can spend more time with her family.
And the most rewarding aspect? “Bringing down major corporations,” she said with another grin. “No, the most rewarding aspect is seeing women engage. Hearing women say ‘Oh my gosh, I can make a difference!’ They say things like; ‘I used to get upset about the porn in the corner store but I thought it was just me – I thought maybe I was hung up or prudish and that maybe there was something wrong with me. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make a fuss. Now I realise that there are thousands of women who feel exactly the same way I do!’ Women are becoming activists and that’s really rewarding.”
Her desire to inspire and facilitate others to act is what made Melinda decide to start Collective Shout, an online community of men and women actively working against ‘sexploitation’. The group has had some impressive wins in its first year of activism.
Through individual and collective efforts, Collective Shout has caused Bonds to withdraw bras for 6-year-old girls, had a sexist Lynx/Woolworths promotion cancelled, seen billboards depicting scenes of sexual assault taken down and a degrading bottle opener pulled from shelves in Myer.
One of the most distressing things she’s come across, Melinda says, is Rape Play. The Japanese video game encourages players to rape a mother and her two daughters, aged 8 and 10. It included a multiplayer option allowing players to engage in simulated gang rape. Melinda wrote to The Australian Communications and Media Authority arguing that the game incited violence against women and girls. As a result, the game was banned in Australia. This, Melinda says, demonstrates the power of a single complaint.
In Melinda’s view, Jesus showed the importance of working for dignity and justice for women.
“Jesus’ attitude towards women was radical,” she said. “I don’t think we fully comprehend how radical He was in His attitude and in the way He treated women during that period in history. He helped liberate women from oppressive attitudes and I think unfortunately that message has been distorted.”
The issue of ‘Comfortable Christianity’ is one being widely discussed at the moment. Many people are torn between deciding whether to live a ‘nice’ Christian life, or getting out of their comfort zone and making a difference.
“I’m no theologian,” Melinda said when asked about Christianity and activism. “But that (comfortable Christianity) is not a Christian model at all. The one thing I know is that we’re supposed to make a difference. We should be speaking out and getting into trouble. We should be outrageous. What the hell are we doing if we’re not making a difference?”
And the overall solution? “We need to overthrow the culture and implement radical change. This includes changing harmful male attitudes towards women and children. We’re seeing the global oppression and subordination of women and children so why would we demand anything less? The reason things are as bad as they are is because we’ve been complicit. We need to try and turn this thing around by engaging one woman at a time.”
For more information on Collective Shout and for ideas and tips on fighting sexualisation in your corner of the world, visit http://www.CollectiveShout.org
Effects of Sexualisation*
Self-harm is the highest cause of hospital admission for girls aged 13-19.
Body Image is the Number 1 concern for the fifth year running in Mission Australia’s annual youth survey.
One in 100 adolescent girls in Australia is suffering from anorexia and one in 10 is bulimic.
One in four teen girls wants to have plastic surgery.
70 percent of boys have seen porn by age 12, 100 percent by 15. Pornography exposure is socialising boys to see women and girls only in terms of sexual gratification which in turn impacts their future relationships.
The American Psychological Association identified objectification of women and sexualisation of girls as a significant contributing factor to these problems.
Collective Shout Wins**
Cotton On removing baby and toddler clothing featuring sexualised slogans.
The AFL cancelling a sponsorship deal between Hooters restaurant chain and an under 16 boys football club.
Gold Coast Turf Club forced to cancel a women’s bikini track sprint.
Harvey Norman cancelling a radio ad for ‘Photos with Santa’ which also mentioned lap dancing.
The standard you walk past is the standard you set.
I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody – Lilly Tomlin
* Collective Shout
** Collective Shout
Images CollectiveShout.org MelindaTankardReist.com.au EnhanceMagazine.com