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Dial D for Diversity
by Kerri Kanelos
This article originally appeared in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, no.33, Fall 2006.

Apparently it doesn’t take much to get a “Best Of Innovations” Award from the Consumer Electronics Association. The 2006 winner, Firefly, “the mobile phone for mobile kids,” named after the product’s colorful light display, includes security features to prevent kids from making or receiving unauthorized phone calls and pay-as-you-go service offered through Target, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Limited Too.

But besides the issue of whether 8-year-olds really need their own cell phones, Firefly raises the question of, once again, why the makers of seemingly gender-neutral products feel the need to separate the sexes. Reminiscent of restroom doors, the phone’s main features are gendered mom and dad speed-dial keys that apply only to those in heterosexual nuclear families. In a country where more children are raised in nontraditional households each year, kids living with same-sex parents, single parents, transgender parents, grandparents and so on really don’t need a cell phone to drive home the point that their lives are not reminiscent of some retro-fantasy Ozzie and Harriet.

Although the phone only comes in blue, Firefly offers consumers an array of heavily gendered accessories. Interchangeable soft plastic shells are sold to “individualize” the product. One series of shells has bold names like Slime, Fire, X-Ray, and Urban Camo—featuring a military blend of red, orange, and yellow. The other includes Bubblegum (all pink), Hearts (mostly pink), and Polka Dots (which also contains pink). The starter kits are no better. One comes in an “Action Kit” including a slime-colored shell and a green-and-black pouch to hold the phone, house keys, and other small items. The other, which includes the exact same items but in pastel, is called a “Fashion Kit” and comes with a pink protective shell and wristlet purse. Can you guess which is targeted to boys and which to girls?

While some may argue that girls are more than welcome to purchase an Urban Camo phone shell or slime pouch, some retailers limit the products available to consumers. For example, the Limited Too (a tween-girl clothing store) only sells Firefly’s phone, lanyard, bubblegum shell and pink-and-black wristlet purse.

Am I the only person who thinks that gender stereotyping is less than innovative, or that Firefly is just another product for kids ages 8 to 12 that promotes the tired old dichotomy of active boys and pretty girls?

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Love for Sale
by Kerri Kanelos
This piece originally appeared in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, no. 26, Fall 2004

The 1980s teen flick Can’t Buy Me Love probably didn’t inspire most of us toward anything more than a boyfriend who resembled cute Patrick Dempsey. But the movie (original title: Boy Rents Girl) spurred one cash-strapped Texas student to start her own girlfriend-for-hire service. Aspiring entrepreneur “Judy” posted an auction on Ebay for one month’s worth of virtual girlfriend services—including a perfumed, personalized letter and a picture every week. Her auction, to her surprise, soon had over 16,000 hits and a winning bid of $41. Over 20,000 people viewed her second auction, for which the top bid was $81. Judy’s success spawned a wave of copycat courters, and these days imaginary girlfriends have joined the pantheon of mail-order brides, phone-sex operators, and “escorts” in the booming faux-relationship sweepstakes, using the power of the internet to market their sexuality to consumers all over the world.

On websites like ImaginaryGirlfriends.com (the current frontrunner in the imaginary dating industry), men can choose from a variety of potential honeys, who—for the low, low fee of $49 for two months of fake dating—will provide scented love letters, personal photos, phone messages, instant messaging sessions, and even worn underwear. At the end of the subscription—er, relationship—the buyer can create an elaborate story about the breakup and the imaginary girlfriend will write one last letter or e-mail begging for another chance.

With low-effort, low-commitment options such as the Casual Encounters section of Craig’s List providing hookup options for the busy and lonely among us, it’s worth wondering what men are getting out of the airless back-and-forth provided by an imaginary girlfriend. The IGs themselves say that most of their customers are lonely, afraid of rejection, or are looking for something exciting in an anonymous setting. Some consumers are busy, career-oriented people who can afford these services but can’t pay the emotional price of a real relationship. One IG, Erica, says that men use the faux relationships to practice their social skills: “They’re exceptionally shy and don’t have the confidence to approach women in the ‘real’ world.” Others sign up for the service of sending exes into a jealous rage or enroll their pals to play a joke on those who already have a real girlfriend.

Most imaginary girlfriends fit the same stereotypical sexualized feminine roles that can be found in other faux relationships: They range in age from 18 to 25 and describe themselves as either college students studying nursing or elementary education, or as employees for establishments such as Hooters and massage parlors. Their hobbies and interests are similarly textbook, and include going to the beach, modeling, exercising, talking all night, and dancing at clubs. To further interest potential customers from all walks of life, some girlfriends state that they are not easily offended, are willing to try new things, are ready to act out any role, and point out that their sole purpose is to make the consumer feel great. (Writing skills seem somewhat important too: “We request a sample love letter and phone message [from potential IGs] to verify that the services can be provided,” says Ron James, who with his wife Rachel, created ImaginaryGirlfriends.com.)

“This site is not designed to limit whom one can date but instead offer a broad spectrum of possibilities to learn and grow from,” read the description on the now-defunct site ImaginaryDating.com, whose owner, Brian Brown, first discovered imaginary girlfriends through the popular Ebay auctions. But that spectrum never seemed to move far beyond 18-year-old bisexual women who work at Hooters and enjoy bubble baths, kittens, and being both naughty and nice—of which, if these sites are to be believed, there are a boundless number. Furthermore, what does it say about the value of real relationships when consumers can get giddy romantic satisfaction from an imaginary girlfriend who may be writing the same love letter to 10 different men at the same time?

For an answer, let’s turn to Judy, the original IG, who for a bargain $30 a month still sells the same sweetly scented services from her Ebay days. But for those not interested in making a one-month commitment to her, Judy also sells imaginary one-night stands for only $8: Consumers supply the storyline and receive one postcard with personal information related to the steamy scenario. Her website notes that imaginary flings are a great way “to prove that you are hot and do get women.” And, as Patrick Dempsey learned in that fateful film, maybe that value goes further than you’d expect.