Creators of Refinery29 feminism series urge Sweet Briar students to be ‘heard and seen’

Kassidy Brown (left) and Allison Rapson speak to Sweet Briar students Tuesday afternoon in Murchison Lane Auditorium.
Kassidy Brown (left) and Allison Rapson speak to Sweet Briar students Tuesday afternoon in Murchison Lane Auditorium.

“Raise your hand if you consider yourself a feminist!”

There was little hesitation among most Sweet Briar students when Allison Rapson, one half of the female-founded media company “We Are the XX,” introduced Tuesday afternoon’s orientation event in Murchison Lane Auditorium. It was an interactive presentation by Rapson and business partner, filmmaker Kassidy Brown, titled “21st-century Feminism & The Art of Taking Up Space.”

“I identify as a feminist because I am a woman and men and women should be treated equally,” said one first-year.

“Every human should be treated equally no matter what,” chimed in another.

Only a handful of students felt differently.

“I choose not to identify as a feminist because it has taken on a negative connotation,” said one of them. “I choose to [voice my opinion] through my actions, not the words I use.”

It was a response Rapson, who comes from a media and communications background, and Brown had heard many times before. When the two met just four years ago at the Women in the World Summit, they both noticed it: Many young women had trouble identifying as feminists, even if they believed in the cause.

“Within our generation, there seemed to be a hesitation to rally behind the word ‘feminism,’ ” Rapson remembered. “But to rally behind something, you really need a word.”

Brown and Rapson wrote a manifesto that underlies every aspect of their work. Image courtesy of “We Are the XX.”
Image courtesy of “We Are the XX”

Together, they decided to form a company that would be dedicated to telling women’s stories. They came up with a feminist manifesto that is at the heart of everything they do. They approached women investors and eventually raised enough money to fund their first project: “A Woman’s Place,” a documentary series reporting from “the frontlines of feminism” around the world.

While they found that feminism is expressed differently in each country, they also discovered something surprising: “It feels the same everywhere,” Brown said.

The next 45 minutes were spent watching three of the videos Brown and Rapson filmed during their world travels, interjected by commentary from the filmmakers on their experiences in each location.

One episode took them to Cairo, Egypt, where they talked to 21-year-old female activist Basma El-Gabry, who has created a movement of women who ride scooters to avoid the threat of sexual harassment in public. Since the video aired on Refinery29.com — America’s fastest-growing fashion and style website for young women — El-Gabry has received lots of news coverage, and her Facebook group now has more than 5,600 members.

In the Q&A that followed their presentation, the filmmakers admitted that Egypt posed the most risks. Not having obtained a hard-to-come by permit to film in Cairo’s streets, Brown and Rapson hired an unsuspecting male tour guide who, insisting that they were tourists, defended them against the heavily armored secret police.

“We were told [beforehand] that we would be arrested for sure,” Brown said.

Thankfully, they weren’t.

Another episode introduced the two to Femtastic, a group of female rappers, DJs and activists in Sweden. Even there, in one of the world’s most progressive countries, the number one issue on feminists’ minds — next to equal pay — was sexual violence. Several of the artists and activists featured talked about the nuances of rape, and that in Sweden, unwanted sex is oftentimes not understood — or prosecuted — in the same way as overtly violent assaults.

Kassidy-Brown-and-Allison-Rapson-at-Sweet-Briar
“When women speak up, things change.”

“Have self-sovereignty with your body, and know your rights,” Rapson advised the students. “Take care of each other, listen to each other, and learn from each other’s experiences.”

Domestic violence — resulting from a cultural expectation that women be obedient — dominated conversations in Brazil, where Brown and Rapson embedded with a female graffiti artist and a lawyer fighting to protect women’s rights in domestic-abuse cases.

All three episodes are part of the series “A Woman’s Place” and can be watched on Refinery29, which has licensed the content. There are eight episodes total, and all of them tell the story of resilient women across the globe fighting for equality in their own communities. In most cases, movements start small, but they end up having a profound impact. The key for women, according to Brown and Rapson, is to “be heard and seen.”

“From history books to current headlines, women’s experiences are often left out,” Brown said.

“But,” piped up Rapson, “No one can narrate your story the way you can. When women speak up, things change. … It’s a really incredible time to be a woman.”

Of course, the two had read about Sweet Briar’s story of revival and applauded students for helping to keep their college open.

“You ladies already know what it’s like to move mountains.”