The silhouettes of different women in front of a simple graphic representing a correctional facility. The over laying text reads: "The Art of Involvement - Monologues of the Women in Blue: Many Women, One Voice

The Art of Involvement #4

A Student-made Project Centering Incarceration as Experienced by Women

“I am the voice for the voices that can’t be heard.”

Everyone on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus knows Penny Kane. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a single person on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus who doesn’t know Penny Kane. And all those (many) same people would be able to tell you that Penny— chatty and genuine, kind and overbooked Penny Kane— is also formerly incarcerated.

Though her sentence is often considered short compared to most and less immediately “scary” as a financial crime, Penny has always made sure to put her experiences with the MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections) out in the open, humanizing a population so often deprived of their humanity. 

Penny represents the women of Huron Valley Correctional Facility, who she calls “the ugly step-children of the MDOC” for the mistreatment, dismissal, and silencing they face while incarcerated. Her writing has been monumental in sharing her story, and in her newest project, Penny has used her writing skills to bring forth stories of 25 women in condensed monologues in a new format: film. 

The Monologues premiered at the 25 year anniversary of the Inside Out Prison Exchange in Philadelphia, then showed at DePaul University; I attended the screening that occurred last Thursday. Partially I attended to support Penny, but the other large part of me just wanted to attend something that centered incarcerated women, which is rare. 

The film was produced by Journalism and Media Production studio interns with professional lighting and angles. The end result is perfect in its simplicity as it made the words spoken by the women central. 

5 different readings presented in the Monologues, each read by a different formerly incarcerated woman explores themes of degradation, loss, beauty, sexuality, abuse… in short, what it really means to be a woman in prison. The film succeeds in balancing common experiences of the women interviewed and their personal experiences. 

It was emotionally heavy to hear the experiences of Indigenous women in the prison system from Dakota Shananquet, who likened her deprivation of her Anishinaabe cultural practices while incarcerated to the residential schools her grandmother and mother suffered through. “The criminal justice system can be savage at times,” Dakota says in the film, tearing up at recounting her being forced to miss her own daughter’s funeral and not being able to practice her and her ancestors’ way of life even while grieving. 

Another monologue read by Machelle Pearson described “having all her firsts” taken by prison after being incarcerated at 16. While in prison, she was raped by an officer, gave birth, and lost contact with her child quickly. Coming out of the facility at 51 years old, she was able to meet the man he’d become for the first time. She also drove for the first time. 

Other topics explored in the Monologues included the dealing of period products in prisons (women were never given sufficient pads and thus they became a treasured kind of currency), making and wearing makeup and perfume in prison, meeting their intimate needs in various ways, and the support systems AKA “prison families” women form. Each story was genuine, full of life and humor. Each segment felt powerful and overwhelmingly human. 

Following the film, Penny and two of the women featured in the film, Felicia Cotton and Machelle Pearson were available for questions from the crowd. It’s safe to say that the film brought up many questions and reactions from the viewers and resulted in a heathy, open conversation, including the perspective of an attendee who used to work within the justice system overseeing jails. Machelle spoke about her experience meeting her son and learning how to survive in prison after coming into it with a young, less cynical mind. Felicia was one of the women that really looked out for her, and this lead us into deeper discussion describing the prison family dynamic. All three remain involved in activism on behalf of “the women left behind”, as Machelle put it.

Q+A Portion of Monologues Screening event. Pictured here from left to right: Machelle Pearson, Penny Kane, Felicia Cotton.

Penny continues to work towards this goal, seeking to expand the film and the perspectives offered into a 45 minute documentary film. She plans to finish writing the Monologues of Women in Blue (which name she is considering changing due to some confusing it as an event centering women police officers) this Summer, and finish filming in the Fall.

After seeing the film, I pestered our Campus Video Network President, Sydney Mckinney-Williams, to slot it into the student film screening that occurred earlier today. Although I was unable to attend, I heard it was a great event and the film was received well! Penny is hoping that the next screening will be at Wayne State in the Fall. I feel it is a film that needs to be seen and appreciated by many, many people. I have faith that it will be. 

The Monologues of Women in Blue: Many Women, One Voice is certain to spark empathy and respect for the incarcerated women that speak through it and create a broader community that will share hopes that other women will have to endure less at the hands of the MDOC. 

“When you look at us, don’t feel sympathy; feel empathy. Look at our success.”

– Machelle Pearson

Miranda Sings: Alter Egos and Women in Comedy

In case you hadn’t noticed, I love Jimmy Fallon, and during midterms week I may have slightly overdosed on YouTube videos during study breaks…or instead of study breaks. Oops.

But no, I’m not going to talk about Jimmy Fallon yet again, he was merely the mechanism for how I found out about my current topic.

Sasha Fierce. Lemony Snicket. Gorillaz.

What do all three of these things have in common? It’s not music, because Lemony Snicket isn’t a musician, he’s an author. At first glance, it may not be obvious, but when you think about it, they all do have something in common.

They are all alter egos. Think back to when you were a kid, reading A Series of Unfortunate Events (or, if you’re like me, you were probably reading them in the recent rather than distant past). Do you remember how the mystery about who Lemony Snicket actually is intrigued you? Do you remember wondering if this was actually a true story because the narrator was so convincing?

I don’t know what it is about alter egos, but they always seem to fascinate me, especially when they reach a certain level of dedication. When I met “Lemony Snicket,” or rather Daniel Handler, I was fascinated by his willingness to play with this alter ego to entertain all of the kids sitting in front of him on the carpet of the library we were in. And I was thrilled when I walked up to have my book signed by him, only to get witty sarcasm and a note in my book that said “Jeannie! Hi! How are you? Me, too.” Alter egos are simply fascinating to me.

Which is why, when I first saw Miranda Sings playing pictionary on Jimmy Fallon, I became mildly obsessed with her.

The skit is hilarious, but where Jerry Seinfeld and Martin Short were obviously making jokes, Miranda was not. She was withdrawn, and yet I found her the best part of the skit. Instantly I looked her up on YouTube where most of her audience comes from. I scrolled through the videos and though I didn’t automatically realize it, I intuitively knew that this wasn’t a real girl, this was a character and there was a “real” Miranda somewhere.

But I couldn’t find her real YouTube. If you’re familiar with the way YouTube famous people promote themselves, you’ll know that typically the YouTuber will have the “famous” channel, the channel for skits and parodies and music videos, and then will have a separate channel for behind the scenes content as well as personal vlogs for those who are interested. This is meant to separate the two “lives” of the YouTuber in a way that TV and film rarely does – it separates the creator from the creation, pulling the curtain back and showing the audience that yes, these are real people rather than just funny script writers/actors. So as I scrolled through Miranda’s videos, I tried to find a link in the description for the real Miranda channel, the one that isn’t playing to the camera. There was none.

I tried the website, figuring in some small part there had to be a note that said “Miranda Sings is the creation of Miranda Smith, an actress from Atlanta, Georgia” or whatever. There was none. Her entire YouTube channel was completely in character, and her bio was simply her character talking about herself (like she does on YouTube). There wasn’t even a hint for who she was.

This intrigued me further. It’s one thing to have an alter ego, like Sasha Fierce. But there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery; Beyonce was still Beyonce, and she just became Sasha for a short time. Miranda, on the other hand, seemed to do everything in character, purposefully keeping her true identity a secret.


Unfortunately, after about five more minutes of searching, I typed “Miranda Sings” into Google and one of the suggestions read “Miranda Sings real name” and the first result that came back was a video by Colleen Ballinger entitled “Becoming Miranda Sings.”

As you can probably guess, this cracked the code, although I still found her video to be hilarious as she still keeps the character a mystery. Colleen in the beginning claims her and Miranda are “good friends” and once she “becomes” Miranda Sings, she says “Colleen who was in the beginning of this video with me will be in my shows with me,” referring to the Colleen/Miranda comedy tours she takes.

The mystery was solved, and I began watching Colleen’s videos, finding her to be a lot more tolerable than the…um…special Miranda.

And yet, I’m still willing to believe in the mystery behind the ego. I know who she is now, but that doesn’t ruin Miranda’s videos for me. In fact…it makes me like her more.

As I was watching Miranda videos, looking at comments on the Jimmy Fallon video (Miranda’s first big television debut), and thinking about her “acting” with Jerry Seinfeld, I not only gained respect for her as an actress/comedian, but also started thinking more about comedy than I ever had before.

I knew that comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler often talked about the gender inequality in television and media as a whole, but I never stopped to think about women in comedy because I never wanted to be in comedy. But as I thought about it, I realized that the majority of famous stand-up comedians are male, and here I’m talking about stand-up as a genre rather than stand up as a gateway to acting in comedy. When Amanda Seales went on CNN to slam some dude about catcalling, I looked up her YouTube channel and watched her hilarious stand-up. And that’s the only female stand-up comedian I think I’ve ever watched. Ever. Maybe this isn’t telling because I don’t really watch stand-up ever, but when I think about stand-up Bryan Reagan, Louis C.K., and Dane Cook come to mind, rather than Margaret Cho (bless her) or Sarah Silverman.

I know I talk about female equality a lot in my blogs, but it’s only because I’m not only passionate about it but I also see women disproportionately represented in the arts. Like I said, I’ve never wanted to be a comedian, but I have huge respect for them, especially the ladies of SNL (you kill it Leslie Jones), so seeing a young comedian like Colleen makes me so incredibly happy. It’s also interesting that she isn’t doing stand-up (though that could be part of her live show line up), and to me, her character work would shine somewhere like SNL. However, for now, I think she’s happy with YouTube.


Unabashed Taylor Praise

Okay, so, Taylor Swift. I talked about her in a previous post but honestly I’m not ashamed I’m talking about her again. Why? Because she deserves it. And she’s been making me proud since 1989 dropped.

So I guess first is the album. I’m actually really happy with the way it turned out. I’m especially happy with the longer tracklist of this album, making it definitely worth the wait and a lot more accessible. Not a big fan of the opening track “Welcome to New York”, or you don’t really wanna “Shake It Off”? Well, good news for you, there’s 17 more for you to choose from. I haven’t listened to it enough to give a definite ruling on it yet, but I’m satisfied at the moment, though I’ll always maintain Red is her best record to date.

But really though, I have to admit, half the reason I’m satisfied as much as I am is because of “Blank Space.”

You’ve heard of “Blank Space,” right? Because it’s pretty dang good. Like…really good.

First, there’s the song. It’s midtempo, which is a rarity for casual Swift fans, but hardcore ones will know how well she can pull off a midtempo track (think “State of Grace,” “Tell Me Why,” “Long Live,” etc.). And “Blank Space” is no exception. Her lyrics are also on point as usual, being easy enough to remember to constitute a good pop hook, but also clever enough to surpass one-hit wonder status.

And not just the lyrics are clever, but the whole premise. It’s a dark-humor parody of herself, which actually doesn’t surprise me coming from Taylor – she’s not stupid and she does know everything people say about her – and she’s using her favorite medium to get back at everyone in a really clever and tasteful way.

But man, them lyrics.

Screaming, crying, perfect storms
I can make all the tables turn
Rose garden filled with thorns

I like this verse especially because of the rose garden image, which goes perfectly to my next point, which is the video.

This video guys. This video is it. And it’s why I’m not ashamed to talk about her after one post about her. Because she deserves it.

Now, okay, maybe she doesn’t deserve all the credit since she didn’t actually direct the video. But its no secret that she’s heavily involved in her creative process. And even if she didn’t have any say in how this video went, she wrote the song. The song is a parody of herself. But it also applies to every girl like Taylor, every girl who gets beaten down and ridiculed for being “boy-crazy” or “too clingy” or “too emotional” or any of the thousand ridiculous things girls get ridiculed for.

So, the video. In case you’ve been living under a pile of homework (which, okay, I’ll admit, is very plausible), a quick synopsis: boy comes to Mansion di Taylor, Taylor’s chilling with her cat when ding dong, she meets boy and smiles creepily, boy and Taylor do that dating thing in this abandoned castle thing. Boy texts some other girl, Taylor gets jealous and a little violent, cries a lot if her mascara is any indication, stands on a horse at some point, and scares away the boy because of her “emotions.”

Why I love this video is because the parody goes even further than a parody – it becomes a satire, akin to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Taylor isn’t just making fun of her haters, she’s doing exactly what they say she does and exaggerates it to show how ridiculous it is.

Which leads me back to rose garden filled with thorns. Okay, I’m gonna show off my English major skills a bit here and talk about why this line is so brilliant, especially in context of the video. So, if a girl’s a rose, right, she’s pretty, she smells nice, delicate, yada yada stereotypes. But then she has thorns…but she’s not supposed to. She’s supposed to be pretty, perfect. Pretty, perfect things aren’t supposed to have bad things like thorns. But roses are made with thorns…there’s no way to make a rose without thorns, unless you cut them off. They can’ come thornless. So it’s ridiculous to expect a rose to come without thorns.

Now, if you get the metaphor and go WAIT BUT I’M A GIRL AND I’M NOT EMOTIONAL I’M COOL WHATEVER HAHA I DON’T GET EMOTIONAL DON’T STEREOTYPE ME please don’t jump down my throat. I’m not saying all girls identify with this problem, or all girls are like Taylor. You don’t have to be emotional if you’re a girl, just like you don’t have to be emotionless if you’re a boy. But for those of us that are on the emotional side of the spectrum and do get criticized for it, well, this song comes as a much needed relief.

Because calling girls crazy for having emotions, for being normally jealous and sad and possibly even angry…well that’s not cool. And Taylor got it right.

Now, besides all that, I loved this video because of how absolutely gorgeous it is. From her outfits to the setting, the video is so artsy without being like “oh this is artsy because art.” I mean, there is that apple part that I get but not really, but other than that, it’s treated like a piece of art, with the colors and the set and saturation and I love that. Overall, it’s well made, and quality in music videos is something I’ve actually forgotten over the years, since Internet killed the Video Star.

So, there you go. My praise-rant on Taylor’s awesome video/song combo. You go for that 2-1 punch, Tay. I’m proud of you. You’ve grown and gotten complex and you tell those haters. And after, go Shake it Off. You deserve it.