“It Made Me A Better Feminist” – How One Woman Turned A Hellbent Idea Into A Revolutionary Podcast

How One Woman Turned

A Hellbent Idea Into A Revolutionary Podcast

When I was 13, my mother knocked on my bedroom door to show me the pictures she had taken of me at my 8th grade graduation. The one she had put on top was of me taken from the side, walking towards the stage to accept my diploma. At five-foot-seven I was already much taller than my peers – male and female – and my long stride was clearly the subject of the picture. My legs spanned the entire frame.

“You know, sweetheart,” my mom said, “You should really work on taking smaller steps. It isn’t ladylike to move so fast.”

My mother, a pretty, petite blonde from a middle class midwestern family, was only trying to help. She wanted me to be successful. My face went red, and I didn’t respond.

I think about that day a lot. It was the first time someone had told me outright that I was too much. As I attempted to follow my mother’s advice and make myself smaller, I grew another 3 inches.

In the years since, I’ve heard that same message over and over again: you’re too loud, you’re too big, you’re too plain, you’re too flippant, you’re too serious. The messages were always contradictory, and often about things well outside of my control. But one thing was clear: I was too much in key ways, and if I wanted to succeed I needed to be small, quiet, reserved. Smart without taking center stage. Funny without being witty. Pretty without drawing attention to myself. And those were just the things my mother told me. I complied. I walked in the space that felt safe. I called myself opinionated but never brash, educated but polite, tall but fine with taking small steps.

About a year and a half ago, Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election. Something inside of me broke. Not only because the reality of who had won and why was sinking in, but because Hillary Clinton was the god damned embodiment of walking that line of “too much” and “just right.” She was smart but didn’t push it in your face. She was funny without making laugh-out-loud jokes. She was pretty, but wore pantsuits because the media 15 years earlier made fun of her ankles. She was taking all of the advice and using it! She was a senator! A Secretary of State! A presidential candidate for a major party!

You’re not too much – you’re more than enough

And people still hated her.

She was still too much. People “just didn’t trust her” or “just didn’t like her voice” or found her ambition off putting. She wasn’t “authentic” – whatever the hell that means. People made comments about her that didn’t make any sense. She spent years – decades! – doing the things she was told to do. She took her husband’s last name, put her own political ambitions aside, let the men in her life lead, and walked that tight line between being smart enough to play the game and being quiet enough look like she had just accidentally won a few rounds.

There are countless stories that begin on the morning of November 9, 2016, when we all realized that Donald Trump would be the next president. Mine began much earlier – in July 2000, when my mom told me my stride was too long and I needed to take smaller steps. But that morning is where my story bends and becomes relevant. November 9, 2016 is when I took my first long stride since that conversation with my mother all those years ago.

It took a momentous event – the election of Donald Trump – to force me examine my own part in the larger narrative. I wasn’t using my voice, and I didn’t care to. It’s hard to care, to be involved. It’s hard to push against a system that you are ultimately comfortable in. My mother – white, able-bodied, beautiful, rich –  and this world was made to cushion her, as it was made to cushion me. All I had to do was play by the rules and my life would be easy. And it was. I had an easy life. I kept quiet. I was politically active the way many privileged white women are: tangentially, softly, from a distance. My indignation of being told to be small, quiet, easy was nothing compared to the rewards I reaped by playing along.

I realized, all at once, that it wasn’t just about keeping me quiet and easy; it was about keeping all women quiet and easy. It was about giving white, able-bodied, cis, straight women just enough of the benefits of patriarchy so that they do the hard work of keeping other women down. It is an elegant system: make me feel bad about myself, but give me an easy path in life and I do the rest. I put myself above women who didn’t “conform” and kept them down to keep myself up.

After Trump was elected, I wanted to do something. Anything. I reached out to my childhood friend, Sarah Lerner, and asked her out to lunch. She was the most politically active person I knew. We talked for hours, and I knew we could do something special. We could use what we were given, white privilege, and create a space where women could rise to the top of political discourse. I wanted to start a podcast.

Sarah flat out turned me down.

I invited her to lunch again, and told her I had made a plan to launch the podcast. She reminded me that she had said no. I replied, “I know. But it’s just an outline. Just take a look at it.” She did, and I knew I had her. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s give it a shot.”

Fifteen months later, we’ve made that space. Men make up 73% of media management. And because of that, women’s voices are often sidelined, ignored, or insulted. Women are told we’re too emotional for politics, or just flat out not smart enough. We get interrupted when we speak up. We’re told to get back in our place. Hellbent rejects that. Here’s five things we’ve learned, that no one told us about launching Hellbent:

You’re not too much – you’re more than enough. Maybe you’ve heard this before, like I did. But there’s a difference in knowing it and believing it to be true. So maybe you need to read this quote by Marianne Williamson every day, tape it to your mirror, do whatever you need to make it really resonate:

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

Think bigger, and you will be.

The boys club is alive and well (in podcasting too). The reason why Hellbent is known as “for those who resist and persist” is because despite the fact that we are currently riding an exciting wave of feminist revitalized activity, there is work to be done. For one, in the media industry alone, men occupy 73% of top media management positions. When I went to a large podcasting conference last year, the attendees were overwhelmingly male, and almost every panel I went to was led by men. Podcasting is a new media format, but it is already starting to follow old models. We can change that.

Vulnerability is invaluable. There’s always a temptation to “play like a boy,” to “act less feminine” and disown what societal norms have coined as female characteristics in order to “fit in” with the boys club. However, last time I checked, a smile registers the same in every language, and so does a tear, and to disregard emotional intelligence, is to sacrifice just that: intelligence. Leading with vulnerability has in fact, produced the most authentic interviews, created meaningful content for our audience and led to legitimate relationships that make the Hellbent community uniquely real. 

If you’re uncomfortable, you’re doing it right. There are so many days that I think, “Well, I can’t un-learn that.” (Don’t google “incel” if you’d like to sleep tonight.) Despite how uncomfortable it can be, and how much easier wrapping myself up in a cocoon of  white-able-bodied-women privilege would be, this is a barometer for the work that needs to be done. Chances are, if you are uncomfortable, if it feels hard, you are moving in the right direction of making a difference.

Meet someone where they are. Recognizing that everyone is coming from their own “prior-text” their own life experience, just like my mom, you have to meet someone where they are. So, wherever you are, if you’re willing to listen, be challenged, think critically and make your own choice, Hellions everywhere can put our heads down on our pillows at night and feel like we did something right.

Through Hellbent, we have a community of thoughtful, engaged listeners, overwhelmingly female. In every episode, we have a section called “Gratitude Check” because while the political landscape today can be overwhelming at the very least, we can all dig deep and find something good in our lives. We take something normally seen as a disadvantage in politics (openness and vulnerability) and make it something positive. We want to tell our stories as women, to shift the lens through which we view the news. We employ and contract women and pay them fairly for the work they do. We accept feedback and take time to think through and discuss criticism and dissenting opinions. We own our mistakes and push to be more intersectional, more nuanced, and stronger allies. This podcast and this community have made me a better feminist, a better ally, a better citizen, and a better human being. What I learned in the past fifteen months is that to change the world, we have to change ourselves. I had to take that big, long stride into the fray and know that I would come out the other side as the person I knew I could be.

Devon Handy

Devon Handy owns the media company Hellbent and is the co-founder of the funny, fierce and unyielding podcast, Hellbent. Devon is originally from the midwest, but has lived in California for most of her life. She graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies in 2010 and has lived in Los Angeles ever since. Before jumping into politics, she worked as a website designer and developer. You can follow her on Twitter @DevonHandy, where she makes a lot of bad jokes. She is mom to one son, two pit bulls and two grumpy cats. In her copious amounts of free time (ha!), she likes to read comic books, cosplay at geeky conventions and crochet.

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