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How I Became a Feminist November 6, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, LGBT, Politics.
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Reading some personal accounts of how people became feminists, including  “The Fire Inside Me” by a grade 6 girl on the F-Bomb blog, which I linked to earlier this week, made me realize I’ve never written here about how I became a feminist.

I never would’ve called myself a feminist before Grade 12, but I know I was conscious of women’s inequality long before that. My parents were both progressive but non-partisan and at election time they used to get my advice on how to vote. At age eight in the 1993 federal election in North Vancouver I looked over the pamphlets at the kitchen table and demanded that my parents vote for the Liberal, Mobina Jaffer, because she was the only woman on the ballot (sorry NDP, but I was only 8).

When I was 10 we moved to Denman Island. My classmates’ families in North Vancouver seemed to come out of cookie-cutters. Now, on the island, there were parents in open marriages, gay and lesbian parents, single parents, and the occasional nudist wiccan parents, but nobody seemed to care.  In Grade 6 we had a sex-ed presentation from the public health nurse, which included discussion of same-sex sex and oral sex. I knew dental dams weren’t just for dentists before I hit Junior High.

But leaving the island for Junior High made something change in me. I had already had my period from the time I was 9 and now I was one of the tallest kids in the class, although I dressed like a little kid in leggings, a sweater with snowflakes on it, and a headband with a bow. That, plus the part of me that made me an overachiever at school also made me a target. The bus ride from the ferry was the worst. Every day for two years some boys from another island would pelt me with food and pennies, calling me  a penny whore who’d sleep with any guy for a cent. This wasn’t the first time I’d been singled out, but it was the first times it’d been done in a sexualized way.

Not having even come close to holding hands with a guy, I was not only hurt, but also kind of confused. But I followed the advice of parents and teachers not to stand up for myself, because a reaction would just “give the bullies what they wanted”. I thought the only thing to do was to try and make myself cooler. I didn’t want to be smart or political or unique or vegetarian; I wanted to be liked.

Even though I never did manage to turn off the school overachiever thing, I spent a good portion of Junior and Senior High feeling like a fat loser who was destined to be alone for life. In a school full of rednecks I”m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. A kid in my French class got beaten up for being Greek. One group of guys spent lunch hours in the cafeteria joking about starting a “Gay K.K.” to lynch LGBT students. For ages we couldn’t find a teacher willing to step out and sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance Club, but we had an active Pro-Life Club.

Eventually I figured out that I was never going to be able to just be quiet and suck it up. I started speaking out in class. Then, in Grade 11 the BC Liberals swept to power and after they cut funding to women’s centres and made teachers an essential service, I decided to join the NDP.

Which brings us to Grade 12, when two things happened that really led to me calling myself a feminist. The first was that our school’s drama teacher decided to put on a community theatre production of The Laramie Project. I went to see it twice, both times crying through most of it but leaving with a renewed sense of purpose.  Seeing The Laramie Project made me realize how screwed up things were in the world at large, not just in my little world.

It also made me realize that it these conflicts weren’t just about actions – like closing women’s centres – they were also about ideology. I needed tools to fight back. That’s where an assignment by my amazing Grade 12 English teacher came in. Picking a philosopher to research I drew bell hooks out of a hat, so I went to the library and picked up a copy of Feminism is for Everybody.

bell hooks’ definition of feminism is: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” By “oppression” she’s talking about multiple types, including homophobia and racism. hooks was clear: feminism isn’t about hating men or playing the victim; it’s a foundation from which to fight for equality. I had decided it was going to be my foundation.

Now it’s seven years later and my feminism has gone through shifts. More and more I’ve thought it’s important to include men in the feminist movement. I’ve also grappled with my own privilege as a straight, white able-bodied cis woman and tried to make sure I’m speaking with,  not speaking for others. I hope my feminism now is more nuanced, and there will continue to be changes, but I still believe in bell hooks’ fundamental definition.

Basically, if it weren’t for my parents, Denman Island, the Laramie Project, and my Grade 12 English teacher I wouldn’t be writing this blog today.





Fall 2010 Reads October 31, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, Politics, Pop Culture.
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1. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin. I would’ve liked to see more race analysis but Grandin does a good job telling the story of Henry Ford’s failed attempt to create a model midwestern city in the Amazon. Ford wasn’t a big fan of experts, so ended up making a lot of mistakes like building houses unsuited to the jungle climate, planting rubber with no idea of its environmental needs, and hiring staff that used company money on drunken escapades. The anecdotes are entertaining and it gives insight into the history of Ford and the rubber industry internationally.

2. Myths of Gender by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Fausto-Sterling wrote this book in 1985, although I read the second edition released in 1992. Even though it’s dated it provides a scientific basis to critique research on sex differences. Fausto-Sterling is a biologist who believes there are some innate biological differences between the sexes, but believes most of the scientific research on the subject to be flawed. In particular, she criticizes the belief that men are naturally smarter and better at math, the belief that men are naturally more aggressive due to hormones, and that menstruation and menopause are “diseases” that effect all women similarly. While researchers in many other disciplines have also tackled these issues it’s interesting to see someone fight science with science.

3. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up this book from a discount rack at Powell’s. Sarah Vowell’s history of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony manages to be quirky, moving, funny, and thorough. She critiques a view of colonization that ignores the violence done to Aboriginal peoples and uses historical writings and modern politics to give us a thoughtful exploration of what it means to see America as a Puritan nation.

4. Manhood in America: A Cultural History by Michael Kimmel. Some feminist scholars argue we don’t need any more men’s history since mainstream historical research has always revolved around men. While Sociologist Michael Kimmel somewhat agrees with that statement, he sees that what’s been lacking is a history of masculinity. I highly recommend Manhood in America, in which Kimmel posits there have been different types of ideal masculinity struggling for prescience in the US since the American Revolution. Using histories of literature, psychoanalysis, politics, and health, he argues the type of the “self-made man”, who brings himself up from nothing to accumulate wealth and prestige, is the type to which modern men are expected to aspire. In the end he argues for a more “democratic masculinity” that does not base its identity on exclusion via homophobia or sexism. If you’re going to read any book on this list, make it this one.

5. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel. I was so excited to find another book by Kimmel after Manhood in America, but I was kind of let down by Guyland, which explores the lives of men aged 16 to 26 in America. Kimmel calls the territory these men inhabit “Guyland”: a social arena in which guys are forced to constantly prove themselves as men while being suspended between childish buddy culture and adult responsibilities. While I appreciated Kimmel’s arguments about the amount of gender policing, I’m not convinced that it’s unique to the age group he looked at. Further, a lot of the social pressures he discussed, such as guys feeling stuck and unable to forge a good career for themselves, I don’t believe are that gender-specific.

6. The Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases by Henning Mankell. On to fiction. The Pyramid is the last book in the Wallander series by Henning Mankell, but takes the reader back to Wallander’s life before the first novels. I’ve now read the entire series and while I enjoyed The Pyramid, the fact that it was broken into short stories made it more obviously formulaic. It made me realize I’m not sure if there’s a Wallander story where the finding of the body isn’t followed by a comment on the weather, along the lines of: “Wallander got into his car. The fog rolled off the embankment. It was four-oh-two in the morning on September 16.” (not an actual quote).

7. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. My step-sisters got me into Gary Shteyngart when they gave me his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, for Christmas a few years ago. Super Sad True Love Story has the same sense of wacky satire, this time looking at a world in which a technology-obsessed America is on the verge of economic collapse.  In the midst of the crisis is set the love story of anachronistic Lenny Abramov (he still reads paper books!) and the secretly vulnerable yet outwardly cruel Eunice Park. What I found interesting was how Shteyngart, consciously or not, visualized a hyper-objectification of (particularly) women as part of the increasing use of technology and obsession with youth and immortality.

That’s what I’ve been reading over the past few months. Next up is Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese. What are you reading?



Gains and Pains: Women’s Municipal Representation in Ontario October 30, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, Politics.
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Two Toronto elects:newcomer Mary Fragedakis and elected incumbent Paula Fletcher

Monday October 25, 2010 was Municipal Election Day in Ontario. While my Facebook news feed was full of people fearing the repercussions of a possible Rob Ford victory in Toronto, I was hoping for historic gains in women’s representation across the province.

Prior to E-Day, women’s representation in municipal politics stood at just 23% (Canada-wide). Women’s voices (in all their diversity) are simply not being heard in City Halls across the country.

I attended a mayoral debate in Ottawa where the only female candidate running, Jane Scharf, was denied an invitation. She took to the stage during the live TV taping, demanding that she had a right to speak alongside her four male competitors. While her tactics were questionable, her point was not.

I also came across a story written about a Waterloo ward meeting where one of the female candidates, Melissa Durrell, stated that she was at home with small children. The two other male candidates then stated that they were the best person to elect because they didn’t have to look after small children…. Seriously?

Back to E-Day, I was paying close attention to 3 cities: Ottawa, where I currently reside; Toronto, my hometown; and Waterloo, my home last year.

I’ll start with Waterloo. Going into the election the city had gender parity on its eight-person city council, including a female Mayor. Amazingly, with the election they were able to gain on this and the council now has a female majority! Women hold five of the eight seats, including the Mayor. Wow.

Toronto managed to elect a critical mass of 33% women. A gleeful reporter in The Star began her article declaring – “Women, we have arrived!” With 15 females elected out of 45, women have (finally) gained a strong voice at Toronto City Hall. 8 females were re-elected as incumbents, 4 beat ward incumbents, and 3 won in open races. Huzzah!

And then there is Ottawa. Of the 130 candidates who ran, only 21 were women (16%). Also in 12 of the 23 wards – there was not one woman running. How many women were elected you may wonder? Good question, I could not find one source that reported specifically on this. But from my own unofficial count, the answer is 4.

Well, there you have it. It was a certainly a historic night in Waterloo as well as Toronto for women in politics. As for Ottawa … next time!

-E. Cain

FFFF: Babe Bennett on Politics October 29, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, FFFF, Politics.
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This is an oldie, from 1994, but in 16 years we’ve only gone from 18% to 22.1% of the seats in the House of Commons filled by women.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday Thought: Thanksgiving October 14, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Politics, racism, Thursday Thoughts.
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On our Plymouth-bound vacation, my sister Amy, my nephew Owen, and I visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, a stone’s throw from Foxwoods…We sit in the museum’s theater and watch a film – a dramatic reenactment of the massacre at the Mystic fort. Owen is seven. His knowledge of seventeenth-century New England derives entirely from what he learned in his school’s Thanksgiving pageant the previous fall and repeated viewings of Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost

When the film shows the Pequot clashing with the Connecticut settlers, Owen whispers, “I don’t get it. Why are they fighting? They eat together on Thanksgiving.”

Cut to the Pequot fort, where we have already seen a little girl around Owen’s’ age playing with a cornhusk doll while being teased by her brother. The reenactor playing Captain Mason yells, “Burn them!” As the wigwams catch fire, Pequot kids are shrieking and holding on to their mothers. The English shoot at the Pequot who flee the flames. Horrified, Owen tugs my sleeve, demanding, “Aunt Sarah! When do they have Thanksgiving?”

“The one with the Pilgrims?” I whisper. “That happened sixteen years earlier.”

Owen closes his eyes and refuses to watch the rest of the movie. When the lights go up, he asks his mother, “Who won?”

“The English,” she replies.

From The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.

The Round-Up: Oct. 12, 2010 October 12, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in feminism, LGBT, Politics, Pop Culture.
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  • It’s Homelessness Action Week in Metro Vancouver and other communities in BC and the Yukon. Poverty is a feminist issue. Find events in your area here.
  • A couple great responses to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign to raise awareness of homophobic bullying in the wake of a shocking number of suicides of LGBT youth: Kaitlin at EqualityKitten points out it’s not just homophobia, it’s also ageism. Garconniere at the Shameless Blog raises more concerns, although I’d hope that now that over 600 videos have been posted, that it would mean more diverse perspectives are represented. Overall I think the project comes with the right intent, and I don’t think it was intended to just tell youth to suck it up and not stand up to bullying. But encouraging LGBT youth by telling them it’ll maybe get better some day is only going to do so much. It would be nice if there was more onus placed on bullies to change their behaviour, and LGBT adults and allies of all ages have to work together to make sure it does get better and to challenge the societal views and institutions that allow homophobic bullying to proliferate. Some Universities and cities are already taking up the challenge but there’s a lot more work to be done.
  • Lisa at Questioning Transphobia points out that during this discussion on bullying we haven’t addressed the specificities of trans bullying, nor the continued discrimination of trans people later in life. Check out her article for some sobering stats (thanks for the link, Kaitlin!).
  • I love this article at the Ms. Blog: “Is Single-Sex Education the New Separate but Equal?”. I have a lot of concerns about sex segregated classrooms, mainly that they imply innate differences between boys and girls, which could reinforce gender stereotypes and make it even more difficult for children who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity to.
  • Check out the Female Character Flowchart at Overthinking It, which charts the main female archetypes in pop culture, from “The Wise Crone” (i.e. Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation) to “The Ugly One” (Meg from Family Guy) to “Psycho Pixie Dream Girl” (Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State.
  • Who says feminism can’t be funny? I’m loving the teasers for the new web series Vag Magazine, which follows a bunch of women who have just taken over a former fashion magazine and are converting it into a feminist publication.

What have you been reading this week?


FFFF: G.A.Y.S. (Guys Against You Serving) October 8, 2010

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Prostitution Laws: Where do we go from here? October 4, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, feminism, Politics.
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Ever since the Ontario Superior Court struck down laws relating prostitution earlier this week and the federal government announced their plan to appeal, it threw open the debate about if and how we should regulate sex work in Canada. Like the general public, women’s and feminist organizations are divided. The Sex Professionals Association of Canada hailed the decision as a step towards recognition of sex work as a legitimate profession. On the other hand, the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (CASAC) put out a release expressing their outrage at the decision for legitimating pimps, organized crime, and trafficking.

It’s taken me a few days to write something on this because it’s such a complicated issue. It’s easy to forget in this situation that a good legal decision might look a bit different than a good policy decision. The judge, Justice Susan Himel, had one decision: are the laws justified to protect the public interest or are they violating sex workers’ right to security of person? She didn’t have the ability to make a better policy regime for sex workers. That responsibility belongs to the federal government, and it’s a responsibility they’ve been shirking for years. In 2006 a parliamentary committee reported that the status quo was untenable and made it “virtually impossible to engage in prostitution without committing a crime” though prostitution itself is legal. However, no action was taken by the government.

So Justice Himel made the right choice. She believed the 3 laws, particularly the law prohibiting communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, did make sex work a lot more dangerous than it has to be. It’s legal to sell sex and therefore sex workers have the right to the same security of person as any other Canadians. The judge made the right legal and ethical decision.

But it’s a mistake to think that this ruling deals with all the issues sex workers face or that it will suddenly solve problems of violence, exploitation, and abuse. Even the lawyer for the sex workers who filed the suit, Alan Young, admits the ruling is no panacea:

The case does not solve the problems related to prostitution, he said. “That’s for your government to take care. Courts just clean up bad laws.”

“So what’s happened is that there’s still going to be many people on the streets and many survival sex workers who are motivated by drugs and sometimes exploited by very bad men. That’s not going to change,” Young added. “Here’s what changed. Women who have the ability, the wherewithal and the resources and the good judgment to know that moving indoors will protect them now have that legal option. They do not have to weigh their safety versus compliance with the law.”

Vancouver-East MP Libby Davies told CTV news: “We need to distinguish between what is consenting between two adults and what is exploitative, coercive and violent and focus the law-enforcement on those aspects.” She’s right, but the distinguishing is where it gets tricky. While there clearly are people who choose to be sex workers (for more on this, check out Jeffrey and MacDonald’s research with Maritimes sex workers), there are clearly those who are trafficked into prostitution or forced into it by economic circumstances, sometimes compounded by drug addiction, mental health issues, and/or racism. Poverty can be a form of coercion, and while that’s no reason for maintaining the harmful patchwork of anti-prostitution laws that we’ve had, it makes me less willing to see this legal fix as more than just one piece of the puzzle.

So where do we go from here? It looks like the court decision is going to finally result in some policy-making at the federal level. Unfortunately, with the Conservatives in power it looks like the government will be fighting this ruling tooth and nail in the name of prostitutes’ “safety”, essentially arguing that some form of criminalization is the best approach, while all the evidence shows that it doesn’t act as a deterrent and only serves to put prostitutes at unnecessary risk. Historian George Ryley Scott concludes his research on prostitution around the world by stating that “the most that can be expected from punitive and repressive measures…is the driving of prostitution into underground channels” (1996, p. 181). As Justice Himel pointed out, one only needs to look at missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside to realize that.

So we’re left with legalizing and regulating prostitution, as in the Netherlands or Nevada, where brothels are legalized. It sounds progressive on the surface – totally legitimating the profession – but some fear that it can actually give more power to pimps and reports show it doesn’t stop the street trade and doesn’t curb violence against sex workers. Melissa Farley’s research found that most women in legal brothels in Nevada had pimps outside, and that rights are severely restricted, with women often forced to live in the brothels and work 12- to 14-hour shifts. In the Netherlands, the average age of death of prostitutes is 34.

More widely endorsed is decriminalization, which is supported by the Canadian Medical Association, the WHO, and UNAIDS when exploitation is not involved. It’s believed that decriminalization will reduce stigma and enable sex workers to organize for security and labour rights. However, as we’ve seen in the response to this debate, some women’s groups believe decriminalization gives tacit approval to the trafficking and exploitation of sex workers.

A slight variation on full decriminalization is the Swedish solution to make it criminal to buy but not to sell sex, an approach championed by Benjamin Perrin in the Globe and Mail and organizations like Vancouver Rape Relief. It’s a somewhat conservative approach that assumes all sex workers are victimized, but it’s probably more politically palatable than total decriminalization and statistics out of Sweden seem promising. That said, I do wonder whether it would just serve to continue to drive prostitution into unsafe areas.

I’m glad Himel’s decision has forced us into having this needed national discussion. It’s a complicated issue and while I definitely don’t agree with criminalizing sex work where there is consent and choice, and while I’m most supportive of decriminalization, I recognize underlying issues of poverty, racism, and sexism will continue to make any material changes difficult, even if Justice Himel’s decision results in national legal reform.

What I’d like to see is for policy-makers to work with both feminist and prostitutes’ rights groups to create broad-based policy initiatives responsive to the needs and views of sex workers. While moves to decriminalize prostitution should be part of these initiatives, recognizing sex worker diversity means also recognizing the needs for services and programs to help those women wishing to leave the sex trade. Finally, dealing with the harms associated with prostitution will involve a concurrent movement towards gender equality, in order to address some of the conditions which push women into prostitution and victimize them in this work.


Thursday Thought: Presidential Masculinity September 30, 2010

Posted by Jarrah H in Can-Con, feminism, Politics, Thursday Thoughts.
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From Manhood in America: A Cultural History by Michael Kimmel:

The tone for the campaign was set, and pundits quickly fell into step. The Louisville Journal reported that when [Martin] Van Buren read this outrageous attack, “he actually burst his corset.” Davy Crockett penned an incendiary faux biography of Van Buren, Damning the President as traveling in “an English coach”…”He is laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them,” wrote Crockett, so that “[i]t woudl be difficult to say from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.”

The strategy paid off handsomely, sending an incumbent to defeat for only the third time in American history…and it set a dubious precedent: Since 1840 the president’s manhood has always been a question, his manly resolve, firmness, courage, and power equated with the capacity for violence, military virtues, and a plain-living style that avoided cultivated refinement and civility.

The campaign of 1840 had a sad, if well-known, coda. Harrison apparently believed his own hype. Taking the oath of office on one of the most bitterly cold days on record in Washington, Harrison refused to wear a topcoat lest he appear weak and unmanly. He caught pneumonia as a result, was immediately bedridden, and died one month later – the shortest term in office of any president in our history. 

Banned Books Week September 29, 2010

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Yup, it’s that time of year again: Banned Books Week, which runs from September 25th to October 2nd. In Canada we’re supposed to celebrate Freedom to Read Week in February, but I say why limit ourselves to one week? In celebration of the freedom to read, here are some of my favourite books which have been subject to bans and challenges. You can find another good list at the Ms. Blog and see the top 10 challenged books of 2009 at The Guardian. Other great resources are the extremely thorough database at The Beacon for Freedom of Expression and the Banned Books blog.

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In 2006 the novel was banned from the AP English curriculum in Maryland because a parent complained it was “sexually explicit and offensive to Christians”, although the ban was eventually overridden. In 2008 a parent in Toronto officially complained about the book, but the School Board recommended in 2009 keeping the book in the Grade 11 and 12 curriculum.

2. Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks. In 1993 a shipment of books was held up at Canada Customs as possible hate literature, but was released a day later.

3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Banned from a number of school districts in the 70s and 80s, Slaughterhouse-Five was also “burned on political, religious, and vulgarity grounds.”

4. The Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry.These were some of my all-time favourite books as a child, but was one of the most challenged books in the States in the 1990s, apparently due to references to beer and Playboy.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. In 2000, Reform Party Executive Council member Terry Lewis tried to get the book removed from school reading lists and distributed 10,000 pamphlets against it, arguing the book’s frequent use of “God-damned”, “Jesus”, and “God” in prophane ways offended Christians. No action was taken by the district he targeted.

6. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Couldn’t find examples, but it’s one of the top 100 banned books of the 20th century.

7. Plays by Shakespeare. In 1999 a teacher in Savannah, Georgia, required students to obtain permission slips before reading Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear, citing “adult language” and sexual and violent content. In 1996 a highschool in New Hampshire pulled Twelfth Night from the curriculum, after the school board passed a resolution prohibiting “prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction”, although that school board was voted out and the decision reversed in 1999.

Little did you know you were looking at something obscene...

8. Where’s Waldo? has apparently been challenged at several libraries for having an illustrated teeny tiny topless woman sunbather lying face down on the beach page of the original book. I guess I was so busy looking for Waldo I never noticed.

9.  The Freedom Writers’ Diary. In 2008 a teacher in Indiana was suspended for a year and a half without pay for using this book in her class against the wishes of the school board. Note, the book is WAY, WAY better than the terrible movie with Hilary Swank.

10. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. The Lorax was banned in the Laytonville, California School District for being allegorical and “criminaliz[ing] the forest industry”.