Tag Archives: Sexism

The Easiest Way to Avoid Saying “He” or “She”

2 Nov

Sexism abounds(Image used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A linguist will have a hard time if he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he or she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he/she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if s/he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if they try to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zhe tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zie tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

Depending upon your political leanings, you may find one or more of the sentences above ridiculous. Many people find the very idea of gender neutral pronouns preposterous to the point of sending death threats to those who have dared to formally enter them in style guides. In the middle of the last century, Strunk and White dismissed any linguistic adaptations motivated by gender equality because, they argued, the word “he” becomes gender neutral, not androcentric, when referring to everyman, mankind, etc. This argument has failed to hold up since the women’s movement, and most Western periodicals agree that such language is archaic with male chauvinist undertones, hence the plethora of proposed alternatives.

This can get harder in other languages. In German, everyone knows right away if your best friend is a girl or a guy because you have to call a female your “best friendess.” A troll gives away her gender in Russian or French the moment she types, “I’m smart/rich/European.” A Japanese speaker would give it away at the word “I.”

But wherever there are strict rules about gender, there is deep confusion about gender. A “girl” in German (“Mädchen,” from which we get “maiden”) is technically gender neutral because all words ending in –chen are. Thus, German kids grow up on stories like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood containing lines such as, “The prince took the maiden home to his castle and married it.” English isn’t any more logical when considering that almost all of our modern caricatures of ducks—ducklings, rubber duckies, Donald, Daffy, and Duckula—are automatically associated with boyishness, yet the word “duck” is technically as female as the word “cow.”

Most people on earth speak a language that distinguishes between “he” and “she” because most of the languages of the former colonial powers do. But a study of several hundred of the 6,000+ languages on earth found most do not. Whether you’re speaking Finnish or Farsi, you can talk about your best friend, your teacher, your doctor or your least favorite coworker for hours without letting anyone know anything about the person’s gender identity. No “his” and “hers” bath towels, no needing to find out your baby’s sex for linguistic ease.

So while The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage now urges its writers to avoid gendered pronouns, it appears the best solution would be to avoid English altogether.

 

 

Doctor Tries to Be Hip And Misses

21 Jul

spine(Image by Katie Cowden used under CC license via)

 

Fifty-five year-old Terry Ragland of Tennessee recently sought medical attention for lower back pain at her local orthopedic center. She was introduced to Dr. Timothy Sweo, who ordered x-rays. After analyzing the results, Sweo concluded that the pain was caused by a curve in the spine called lumbar lordosis. He delivered the diagnosis to the patient by saying plainly, “You have ghetto booty.”

Lumbar lordosis is a severe curvature of the lower spine most visible from the side and it can be caused by a variety of a factors. “Ghetto booty” is, according to the most popular Urban dictionary definition, “a term used when you see a girl with a firm, big, tight packed ass. {Most black girls have ghetto booties}.” In other words, it’s slang for simply having a big butt.

For a medical professional to use the term is fantastically patronizing at best. For a white male medical professional to use racially-charged sex slang with a black female patient he has only met once before is jaw-droppingly gauche. His attempted apology to Ragland via letter does not help his case: “I was trying to take a technical conversation regarding your lower back and make it less technical.”

Presuming orthopedic patients are unable to comprehend medical terms like “lumbar lordosis” is ludicrous. After a month into my first limb-lengthening procedure at age 11, I could explain the difference between lordosis and scoliosis, a corticotomy and an osteotomy, and I could name every bone in the human body. I wasn’t exceptional – I just wanted to understand the world I was living in, like every one of my fellow pediatric patients. Priscilla Alderson’s excellent book Children’s Consent to Surgery presents overwhelming evidence that child patients are far more aware than adults tend to give them credit for. And Ragland is not a child.

“It says to me that he doubts what type of intellect I have, how intelligent I am to be able to understand what he conveys to me in a medical term,” Ragland told reporters.

While Sweo’s condescension comprises a particularly stunning mix of nasty prejudices, he is hardly the first doctor to speak disrespectfully to a patient. Medical specialists are renowned for being scientifically brilliant but socially inept. After making you sit in the waiting room, sometimes for several hours, they swoop in, keep their eyes on your body or the floor, bark a few questions at you, rattle off some orders for the nurse to take down, and swoop out again.  The patient is supposed take solace in the fact that it is all a sign of how important the doctor is.

Since this stereotype has become so pervasive, some medical professionals do make earnest attempts to shatter it, but their success varies. Some try through their body language and demeanor to give you the sense that they are genuinely listening and care about your all-around well-being. Others try by jamming a few blunt jokes into your narrow time slot. It gives you the sense that they’ve just watched Patch Adams and decided that being a clown is the perfect defense against being accused of coldness, so let ’er rip! Your body, your condition and your diseases are hilarious!

Years ago I attended a conference where an orthopedic specialist did a presentation on achondroplasia and said with a smile, “The short bones cause the average-length muscles on achondroplastic people to bunch up so that they look like the Michelin Man!”  He clicked forward to a slide featuring a list of achondroplastic symptoms with “Michelin Man look” featured at the top.  He was obviously very proud of having come up with this description.

I was the only person in the room with achondroplasia, and I had to kick my friend sitting next to me because he couldn’t stop giggling at the surgeon’s cluelessness. The Michelin Man?

Indeed, the most exasperating aspect of the Dr. Sweo case is that he appears to genuinely believe that his comments might have been helpful. Usually it is easier to engage in productive discourse with someone whose intentions are good than with someone who aims to hurt. But in light of his oblivious apology, it seems Ragland has a better chance of getting through to other, more perceptive doctors via the media than to Sweo via complaint.

I have lumbar lordosis.  It’s one of the primary symptoms of achondroplasia and it’s why I had to undergo spinal surgery last year.  I could have crashed this site with a list of all the off-putting doctors and healers I encountered, as well as the sarcastic jokes my closest friends came up with to keep me sane.  As Ragland files a formal complaint with the Tennessee Department of Health, there will inevitably be some backlash about PC culture gone mad and minorities being too sensitive and humorless.  But more power to her for sticking up for herself, and for patients everywhere.

 

 

Does GoldieBlox Break the Box?

9 Jun

 

After its Kickstarter fundraising campaign (see above) proved to be a success, GoldieBlox is here and available for retail.  Designed by an engineer appalled at the 1 to 10 ratio of female to male professionals in her field, the toy is the latest in a series of efforts across the West to combat the gender gap and get girls excited about scientific concepts from the earliest possible age.  Questioning the stereotype of women as “naturally” less competent in math, science and visual-spatial thinking is always admirable.  But does GoldieBlox really amount to anything more than simply painting science pink?    

Parents who want to conscientiously ensure their daughters feel every option is available to them will probably already have bought them Legos and Erector Sets.  But parents and relatives and neighbors who rely more on tradition when picking out presents may be swayed by the color-coding GoldieBlox employs.  As in: “I need a present for a cute girl.  Look, this is pink and cute.  I’ll take it.”  Having worked in early childhood education as well as social justice, I wish every adult responsible for stocking a child’s toy box would be conscientious enough to consider the value and purpose of their every purchase—or at least read the picture book all the way through—before heading to the cash register.  But plenty of adults who want to make kids happy don’t share my interest in kids’ things.  They truly appreciate age recommendations on the boxes, and the pink and blue color-coding.  It is these adults and their beloved little girls who will benefit tremendously from the GoldieBlox expansion of the world of pink into the realm of engineering. 

But why do we need to color code anything to let people know which gender it’s for?  Do we need to rename it GoldieNASA to get more women to work there?  Last year, when Bic introduced pens for women (“Easy glide – feel the smoothness!”), its Amazon page almost crashed under the weight of sarcastic reviews:

 

No Good For Man Hands

 

And then there were the appropriate reactions in November to the Honda She’s, a car marketed to women in Japan with special light and air-conditioning features to prevent wrinkles.  Feminists asked:

 

26

 

Indeed, the most offensive aspect of the pink-is-for-girls mentality is the antiquated belief that women need a softer, daintier, less intimidating variation of the standard, which was built for men by men.  Any woman who stops posing for a portrait and approaches that standard is an accident waiting to happen!  Right?

Pink cars and laptops and cell phones and building blocks trigger my gag reflex because they seem to be so obviously marketed as the deviation from the more serious male standard.  But is it fair of me to assume this?  Would GoldieNASA really be so bad?  A friend who works as a software engineer and buys so many Hello Kitty products I suspect he accounts for half of Sanrio’s market share would say no.  He agrees with me that Barbie and the Disney Princesses inappropriately introduce pre-schoolers to sexual self-objectification and viciously narrow beauty standards.  He is both irritated and concerned about those of any gender identity who think they should use their vulnerability to get what they want.  But his kitchen cupboards are brimming with cups emblazoned with pink hearts and daisies and butterflies.  He would love to work at GoldieNASA.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink or with girls and boys, and men and women, being cute.  In fact, trashing the color pink and all things marketed at girlie-girls is often motivated by a powerful misogynistic tradition: the belief that things for girls are dumb and frivolous because girls are dumb and frivolous.  This is usually why boys and girls watch films and read books marketed to boys—like Harry Potter or Star Wars or every Pixar film but Brave—while only girls watch films and read books marketed to girls.  Some misogynists and feminists uphold this disparity by uniting in their belief that twirling around in ball-gowns is silly because it’s not a skill needed by the average adult in modern life.  Indeed, it is not.  But then neither is sword-fighting.    

For this reason, it is imperative to teach kids that the value of a toy or story derives from its content, not its color.  Within this lesson lies the truth that there is more to being a girl than dressing up and being cute, just as there is more to being a boy than being stoic and winning every competition.  Every child should feel every option is available to them because the most innovative minds approach the world with the least reliance on tradition.

GoldieBlox will have succeeded when it is ubiquitous in any child’s room because it will signify that adults are picking their purchases based not on color but on this simple rubric:

 

 

 

The Year In Review

30 Dec

Hidden Object(Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC license via)

 

When I launched Painting On Scars at the beginning of this year, I had loads to say and almost as much worry that few would be interested in issues of disability and physical difference.  As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that the posts about ableism and lookism have generally been the most popular, followed by my spring article about family planning, reproductive rights, and privacy.  This hasn’t been the only surprise.

Lots of people find this blog by googling “dwarf + woman + sex.”  I have no idea who these people are.  They may be fetishists, they may be researchers, they may be women with dwarfism.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Since March, Painting On Scars has been read in over 100 countries.  To the surprise of few, no one in China reads it.  To the surprise of many, at least one person in Saudi Arabia does.  So have people in St. Lucia, Jordan, and Benin. 

Thanks to blogging, I’ve discovered there is a considerable online community committed to combating ableism with its own terms and tropes such as “supercrip” and “inspiration porn.”  I love such communities.  I also love bridging communities.  Because responses to my blog have shown me, perhaps more than anything has, that I want to talk to everyone.  And I really don’t care what your label is. 

I don’t care if you consider yourself Republican or Democrat or feminist or anti-feminist or religious or atheist or socialist or libertarian or apolitical or intellectual or anti-intellectual.  Well, okay, I do take it into consideration.  Somewhat.  But there is rarely consensus when we ask that everyone define these terms.  And none of them carries a guarantee against nasty personality traits like narcissism and defensiveness and aggression and cowardice.  Novelist Zadie Smith noted that we are told every day by the media and our culture that our political differences are the most important differences between us, but she will never be convinced of that.  When lefty comedian Jon Stewart was asked earlier this year if there’s anything he admires about right-wing hardliner Bill O’Reilly, he said, “This idea that disagreeing with somebody vehemently, even to the core of your principles, means you should not engage with them?  I have people in my own family that make this guy look like Castro and I love them.”

This is not to say that it’s all relative and I see no point to social justice or politics.  On the contrary, difference continues to be marginalized by the tyranny of the majority, as evidenced by the fact that the number one Google search term that has brought readers to my blog is “freaky people.”  And far too many kind people will more readily lash out at a person or group whose recognition demands they leave their comfort zone, rather than the forces that constructed and defined their comfort zone.  Well-intentioned friends and parents and bosses and classmates and leaders and partners and siblings and colleagues are capable of the vilest selfishness when they are scared of a power shift.  (As the Christian activists pictured above acknowledge.)  This is heart-breaking.  And it is not okay. 

But on the flipside, people are constantly smashing the prejudices I didn’t even know I had about them.  Every day friends and family and strangers demonstrate strengths that highlight all the mistakes I make, proving to me that politics are tremendously important but they will never be the most important element of a human being.   That may be a political idea in itself, but regardless of the divisions, most people on earth do seem to believe deep down inside that everybody matters.

And that’s what makes the struggle for social justice worth it.  If you are friendly and well-mannered and generous and honor your commitments and don’t let your self-doubt make you self-centered and try to listen as much as you talk and are honest about your problems without fishing for compliments and are big enough to apologize when you’ve screwed up, I respect you and admire you and am humbled by you.  I want to do the best I can because of you. 

 And since you’ve read this far, it’s more than likely you’re good at listening.  Thank you and happy new year!

 

 

Dragging Entertainment Into the 21st Century

21 Oct

(Via)

 

This week, humor site Cracked.com features a great article by J.F. Sargent titled “6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can’t Seem to Get Over.”  Alongside the insidious ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia still manage to persevere in mainstream entertainment, Number Two on the list is “Anything (Even Death) Is Better Than Being Disabled”:

In movie universes, there’s two ways to get disabled: Either you get a sweet superpower out of it, like Daredevil, or it makes you absolutely miserable for the rest of your life. One of the most infamous examples is Million Dollar Baby, which ends with (spoilers) the protagonist becoming a quadriplegic and Clint Eastwood euthanizing her because, you know, what’s the point of living like that? Never mind the fact that millions of people do just that every day…

Showing someone using sheer willpower to overcome something is a great character arc, and Hollywood applies that to everything, from learning kung fu despite being an overweight panda to “beating” a real-world disability. The problem is, this arc has some tragic implications for the real-world people who come out with the message that they are “too weak” to overcome their disabilities.

The result is that moviegoers think that disabilities are way worse than they actually are, and filmmakers have to cater to that: For example, while filming an episode of Dollhouse where Eliza Dushku was blind, the producers brought in an actual blind woman to show the actress how to move and get around, but the result was that “she didn’t look blind,” and they had to make her act clumsier so the audience would buy it.

Even in Avatar, real paraplegics thought that Sam Worthington’s character was making way too much effort transferring from his chair, but that’s the way we’re used to seeing it in movies. It’s a vicious cycle, and it isn’t going to stop until either Hollywood wises up or people with disabilities stop living happy, fulfilling lives.

I’ve examined Hollywood’s ableist problems several times before and there are still plenty to dedicate an entire blog to.  But, like The Daily Show or The Onion, Cracked has a long history of excellent social critique embedded amongst the fart jokes and it’s awesome.  Especially when considering that not only mainstream but alternative entertainment all too often can’t seem to let go of the tired stereotypes.  That Cracked is a site not officially dedicated to politics or social activism suggests that the comics writing for it believe calling out the industry for its embarrassing ineptitude is just common sense.

 

 

   

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

Interpreting History Part I: Count Me Out

29 Jul

alter ego(Image by Bob May used under CC license via)

 

Anytime my partner and I don’t know what to do or say, one of us asks, “What’s in the news?” and we dive into a political discussion.  So it’s no surprise that we’ve become somewhat embarrassingly addicted to Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  The news media has been (unsurprisingly) critical of a show founded on the idea of chastising the news media.  Feminists have been (sometimes rightly) critical of its portrayal of women.  The show has almost countless strengths and weaknesses, but I find myself still obsessing over the brilliant, captivating opening scene that kicked off the series.  If you can’t this clip, it basically boils down to a flustered news anchor named Will McAvoy overcome with disgust at the state of the nation and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s: “America’s not the greatest country in the world anymore,” he sighs.  “We sure used to be.”

We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, we struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chests…  We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.  We reached for the stars, acted like men.  We aspired to intelligence.  We didn’t belittle it.  It didn’t make us feel inferior…  We didn’t scare so easy.     

“Nostalgia” literally means “aching to come home.”  It’s the temporal form of homesickness, time rather than place being the source of pain.  We all do it.  It can be oddly soothing at times to be in awe of another era, especially the one you were born in.  But Will McAvoy should watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for proof that nostalgia is an ultimately futile pastime that every sad sack of every era has hopelessly indulged in.  (If “things were better back in the day,” then how come every generation says this?)  But since McAvoy’s nostalgia is an earnest, political battle cry, heaping laurels on the good old 1950s and 60s when the leaders of the day did their job right, I’m more inclined to have him watch Mad Men.  Or just open up the 1960 children’s illustrated encyclopedia I found at my great aunt’s house, which states, among other things: “The Australian aborigine is similar to the American negro in strength, but less intelligent.”  Didn’t scare so easy, indeed.     

The problem with nostalgia is that it is far more emotional than intellectual and thereby lends itself to inaccuracy all too easily.  America was indeed doing great things sixty years ago.  And reprehensible things.  We hid our disabled and gay citizens away in institutions, asylums and prisons.  We enforced the compulsory sterilization of mentally disabled and Native American women.  We took decades to slowly repeal segregationist laws that the Nazis had used as models.  We maintained laws that looked the other way when husbands and boyfriends abused their partners or children.  In short, we handed out privilege based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental capabilities with far greater frequency and openness than we do today.  Perhaps we were the “greatest country in the world” compared to the others.  (Europe and East Asia were trying to recover from the devastation of World War II, after all, while other nations were trying to recover from the devastation of colonialism.)  But McAvoy’s wistful monologue is much more a comparison of America Then with America Now.  And that is hard to swallow when considering that a reversion to that society would require so many of us to give up the rights we’ve been given since then.   

Am I “another whiny, self-interested feminist” out to bludgeon the straight, cis, WASPy male heroes of history?  Am I “just looking to be offended”?  No, I’m struggling.  Next to literature and foreign languages, history has always been my favorite subject.  And pop history always touches upon this question:

“If you could go back to any period in history, which would it be?” 

From an architectural point of view?  Any time before the 1930s.  From an environmental point of view?  North America before European contact.  From a male fashion point of view?  Any period that flaunted fedoras or capes.  From a realistic point of view?  No other time but the present.  Because if I am to be at all intellectually honest in my answer, there has never been a safer time for me to be myself. 

Last year, I read The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity To Social Liberation by Betty Adelson.  Despite my love of history, I hated almost every minute of it.  Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen had helped me understand how so many black American students feel uninspired by U.S. history and the figures we hold up as heroes because so many of those men would have kept them in shackles.  But it wasn’t until I read The Lives of Dwarfs that I understood how nasty it feels on a gut-level to face the fact that most of history’s greatest figures would more likely than not consider you sub-human. 

With the exception of Ancient Egypt, my own lifetime has been the only period wherein someone with dwarfism could have a fair chance of being raised by their family and encouraged to pursue an education and the career of their choice, as I was.  At any other point in Western history, it would have been more probable that I would have been stuck in an institution, an asylum or the circus (the Modern Era before the 1970s), enslaved by the aristocracy (Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or left for dead (Ancient Greece).  Of course inspiring cases like Billy Barty show that a few courageous/decent parents bucked the trends and proved to be the exception to the rule, but that’s what they were.  Exceptions. 

I am fortunate to have been born when I was and for that reason, nostalgia for any other period in time can never be an intellectually honest exercise for someone like me.  The moment someone says, “Yeah, well, let’s not dwell on odd cases like that.  I’m talking about the average person,” they’re essentially saying, “Your experience is less important than mine.”

Everyone is entitled to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the era in which they grew up.  If any period can put a lump in my throat, it’s the 1970s.  The Sesame Street era.  The boisterous, primary-colored festival flooded with Williams Doll, Jesse’s Dream Skirt, inner city pride à la Ezra Jack Keats, and androgynous big hair all set to funky music can evoke an almost embarrassing sigh from me.  Donning jeans and calling everyone by their first name, that generation seemed set on celebrating diversity and tearing down hierarchies because, as the saying goes, Hitler had finally given xenophobia a bad name.  Could there be a more inspiring zeitgeist than “You and me are free to be to you and me”? 

 

But I’m being selective with my facts for the sake of my feelings. 

Sesame Street and their ilk were indeed a groundbreaking force, but it was hardly the consensus.  Segregation lingered in so many regions, as did those insidious forced sterilization laws.  LGBT children were far more likely to be disowned back then than today—Free To Be You And Me had nothing to say about that—and gay adults could be arrested in 26 states.  The leading feminist of the time was completely screwing up when it came to trans rights.  Although more and more doctors were advocating empowerment for dwarf babies like me, adult dwarfs faced an 85% unemployment rate with the Americans with Disabilities Act still decades away.  And Sesame Street was actually banned in Mississippi on segregationist grounds.  When the ban was lifted, its supporters of course remained in the woodwork.  We have made so much progress since then.  It would be disingenuous for me to ignore that simply for the sake of nostalgia. 

To be fair to Sorkin, it’s a hard habit to kick.  We have always glorified the past to inspire us, no matter how inaccurate.  Much of American patriotism prides itself on our being the world’s oldest democracy, but we were not remotely a democracy until 1920.  Before then, like any other nation that held free elections, we were officially an androcracy, and of course we didn’t guarantee universal suffrage until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “androcracy” signifies how little attention we afford our history of inequality.  But we have to if accuracy is going to have anything to do with history.  A brash statement like “We sure used to be [the greatest country in the world],” as a battle cry for self-improvement is asking to be called out on the inanity of this claim. 

Everyone is entitled to appreciate certain facets or moments in history, just as everyone is entitled to look back fondly upon their childhood.  Veracity falters, however, with the claim that not just certain facets but society as a whole was all-around “better.”  This is never true, unless you’re comparing a time of war to the peacetime preceding it (1920s Europe vs. 1940s Europe, Tito’s Yugoslavia vs. the Balkans in the 1990s), and even then the argument is sticky (Iraq during the insurgency vs. Iraq under Saddam Hussein).  In the words of Jessica Robyn Cadwallader, concealing the crimes of the past risks their reiteration.  Whenever we claim that something was socially better at a certain point in history, we must admit that something was also worse.  It always was. 

But such a sober look at the past need not be depressing.  It reminds me how very grateful I am to be alive today.  My nephews are growing up in a society that is more accepting than almost any other that has preceded it.  That is one of helluva battle cry.  Because what could possibly be more inspiring than history’s proof that whatever our missteps, things have slowly, slowly gotten so much better?

 

 

When It Comes to the Sexes, Ignorance Is Bitterness

1 Jul

 

“Men and women can’t really be friends, can they?”  In the wake of Nora Ephron’s passing on Tuesday, there’s been a revival of this When Harry Met Sally question.  And you can probably guess what my answer is.  With no disrespect intended to the late feminist, I’m really hoping this is one of her contributions to pop culture whose staying power will erode with time.  It’d be easy to dismiss it as no big deal, nothing more than a cute gimmick, but an excellent NY Times piece from earlier this spring asserts what I have always suspected: Our society’s lack of faith in cross-gender friendships signifies its traditional lack of faith in men and women being able to understand each other.  And that’s a big deal.

According to tradition, men and women view each other as the Other and only meet for the sake of mating and family, hence the cultures wherein women were banned from being seen with any man who was not their husband or relative.  Western pop culture promotes vestiges of this in its assumption that any regular contact with a member of the opposite gender will lead to you falling for them, especially if you’re a guy.  As Jeff Deutchman writes in this several-volume Slate article, “It’s called having no standards.”  When Harry Met Sally says, Fine, maybe as a guy you don’t fall for every woman who crosses your line of vision, but it’s your only motivation for maintaining a friendship with one, and attraction will always poison friendship.  Oh, puh-lease.

“Only worth it if I get laid” may be the rule for a Hollywood character, but it is a very bleak view of the other gender.  Friendship may be impossible if you are set on maintaining that view, but in that case, too bad for you.  And everyone else around you.  I’ve seen friendships survive unrequited love, illicit feelings, romantic trysts and break-ups, and go on to rival any sisterhood or buddy bond in depth.  Men and women can sure as hell be friends, and I don’t mean friendly chit-chat at dinner parties.  I mean call-up-and-confide-your-deepest-fears, ask-for-advice-on-your-most-serious-problems, make-you-laugh-in-a-way-almost-no-one-else-can friends.  Instead of Harry and Sally, they embody Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes, or Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, nurturing an allegiance that says “So what?” to any sexual tension, past or present.  They are anathema to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” folklore, just as international relationships are anathema to racist myths. 

It is true that men and women are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, just as Germans and Americans are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, as are New Yorkers and Texans, Berliners and Bavarians, Long Islanders and Upstaters.  But there is always far more variation in the thoughts and behaviors within cultures than across them.  Our traditional categories ignore this, suppressing any details that throw themselves into question, no matter how critical.  Arguing against male-female understanding by emphasizing the traditionally recognized differences is disingenuous because it relies on an extremely narrow, heteronormative perspective. 

Social conservatives often cite hormonal and genetic differences as wedges between men and women, straights and gays, but such arguments are cherry-picking the facts to prop up the antiquated gender binary.  In a New York magazine article on transgender children appearing last month, a theory presented by Dr. Jean Malpas breaks down the concepts of sex and gender into not two but four parts, visually represented on a stick-figure:

  • Biological Gender: your chromosomes and genitals.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s crotch.
  • Sexuality: your romantic attraction to others.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s heart.
  • Gender Style: sometimes called Gender Expression, your preferred self-presentation in matters such as fashion, posture, speech patterns and hobbies. Indicated by a circle around the outside of the stick-figure’s body.
  • Gender Identity: your innate sense of being male or female or androgynous, regardless of biology or style or sexual interest.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s brain.

We are so much more complex than Harry and Sally, and so much deeper than they give us credit for.  Just as an international relationship requires at least one if not both partners to be bilingual, a cross-gender friendship requires at least one if not both friends to be intellectually curious, empathic and uninterested in the stereotypes they have been taught regarding both their own gender and someone else’s.  Indeed, the author of the Slate article claims that cross-gender friendships work best between individuals who are “less gendered.”  (Guys who are unafraid to enjoy movies like The Joy Luck Club, no matter the risk of looking effeminate; women who are unafraid to make asses of themselves, no matter the risk of looking unladylike… )  Bonding over common experiences is easy.  Considering a different point of view despite cultural pressures signifies genuine respect, the very sort needed to fuel any kind of progress.  This is why having close friends of all kinds of gender identities, styles and sexualities can be so awesome. 

Friendship, unlike politics, requires the participants to not just listen to each other but hear what the other is saying.  As a woman who wants a career, I am still expected to juggle it with almost all the responsibilities of childcare because mothers who focus more on their success than their family are negligent.  Many guyfriends are sympathetic to this, while pointing out to me that with or without a family, they are expected to focus more on their success than their emotional fulfillment.  Discussing such ambivalent feelings with friends of the same gender identity can be very helpful, but peer pressure can impede it.  Discussing such feelings with a romantic partner is very important, but it carries the burden of how these feelings will affect the relationship.  Discussions that take place outside of a romantic relationship are more likely honest than resentful because the problem can be identified without having to be solved right away.  That’s what friends are for.   

But it receives little support from tradition because Harry and Sally insist that straight men and women are doomed to fall in love, and traditional notions of love have very little to do with respect.  In passionate romance, possessiveness trumps respect, and while overt jealousy may now be seen as uncool, the tendency for men and women to break off along gender lines at parties seems to correlate directly with the number of monogamous couples.  Pursuing a new friendship with a man your husband doesn’t like—who isn’t gay—can still be judged as inappropriate.  But it’s a double standard, because many men and women strongly dislike their partners’ same-gender friends, yet to try to quell such friendships would be seen as Yoko Ono tyrannical. 

As partners, we should understand that cross-gender friendships more often indicate open minds than loose morals.  Navigating the complexities of life-long commitment is where men and women need to be able to understand each other most.  People whose primary or only close communication with the other gender is through their partner are more likely to assign misunderstandings to their partner’s entire gender.  (“Women are incapable of being on time!”  “Men can’t be trusted for the life of them to buy Christmas presents!”)  The more opaque we consider the Other to be, the less likely we are to try to understand their perspective, as well as the perspectives of those who don’t fit into our stereotypes.  It’s no coincidence that the cultures that place the most restrictions on male-female interaction afford the fewest freedoms to women and LGBT individuals.

But things are getting better.  Cross-gender friendships are more accepted now than ever before because men and women of all gender identities are communicating and understanding each other at record levels.  Not only are new mothers freer to nurture an identity outside the home, but new dads are more likely to hug their children and tell them they love them now than at any other time in modern history.  Attraction and the possibility for it will probably always complicate relationships—and politics and life—to some degree, but open dialogue continues to prove that the Other is never as impenetrable as we have been told.  In the words of researcher Kathryn Dindia, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”  Our friendships are both the cause and the result of this.

 

 

Pfingsten

26 May

 

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., Pentecost weekend here in Germany, and seeing as I have now gone way longer in broadcasting consecutive new material without a single re-run than The Simpsons ever has, I’m taking the day off and leaving you with the above revelation.  Till next week!


The Gender Police

5 May

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last Sunday, Pastor Sean Harris of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina gave a sermon on gender:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is 4 years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’

Harris used the sermon to voice support for an upcoming proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.  North Carolina law already prohibits same-sex marriage.  The constitutional amendment would simply make it ever more so, as well as ban same-sex civil unions.  Update on 9 May: The amendment passed.

The hostility Harris invoked is one of the absolute best arguments for the opposition.  Play his sermon on a loop next to the 2010 study finding American children of lesbian parents report the lowest rate of abuse and repeat: Who’s advocating happy, loving families here?  But it should concern not only those who believe in same-sex marriage or non-violent childcare, but anyone who believes in equality and a non-threatening approach to character development.  Because, unfortunately, Harris was merely saying directly what children, teens and adults are told stealthily almost every day.  

In the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, religious scholars and sociologists conclude that the reason socially conservative religious groups target same-sex marriage so passionately is because it disrupts patriarchy.  Indeed, Harris’s rant embodies the two most arbitrary, constricting rules for heterosexual women and men in dating that endure today.  That is, nothing is worse for a guy than seeming effeminate, and nothing is worse for a woman than being ugly.

Most readers may agree that these rules exist but certainly not to the extreme that Harris advocates.  Rarely does Western society openly invoke the violent, threatening imagery he did.  But these rules take various forms, often masquerading as indisputable facts about innate gender differences, and are reinforced in films and magazines, and as mantras in everyday conversation. Many of the following probably sound familiar to you:

1) Women constantly want to constantly shop the way guys constantly want to get laid.

2) A woman should ultimately let the guy pursue her lest she emasculate him and, in any case, she should want to be pursued.  Because every woman is a princess and every guy is a hunter.

3) Guys can’t be sexually assaulted by women.  They can only be grossed out by the advances of ugly women.

4) She can play sports or join the army, but she needs some makeup to be attractive and should always take care of her looks more than a guy should.

5) But she shouldn’t wear heels if it makes her taller than her man.

6) While many men can expect conventionally attractive women to overlook their gray hair, baldness, wrinkles, and/or chubbiness for their success or sense of humor, a woman cannot expect a conventionally attractive man to do the same for her.  Beauty and the Beast was about the woman seeing past her lover’s looks, not the guy! 

7) Guys don’t cry, but women do.  A lot.  Because guys use assertiveness to get what they want, while women show their vulnerability to get what they want.

8) Guys don’t cuddle with each other.  That’s gay.  But women cuddling is either sweet or hot.

9) He’s castrated if she asked him out, she’s physically stronger than he is, he earns less than she does, he takes her surname, or she talks more than he does at parties. 

10) And he’s gay if he’s interested in dresses, skirts or makeup.

11) Or if he enjoys books or films about women’s experiences.

What silliness. Exiling the very real horrors of LGBT persecution to the peripheries for just a split second, how many of you nearly choked yourself laughing at Harris’s order to “get outside and dig a ditch because that’s what boys do”? 

Nothing should be off-limits to anyone unless they honestly, independently have no interest in it.  Most of us are probably disinterested in or uncomfortable with some of the aforementioned behaviors, but the disinterest should arise from self-awareness, not authoritative training.  And I’ve met enough self-aware, self-confident individuals to know that these behaviors do not fall along gender lines, but personalities. 

My neighbor loves ponies as much as she loves repairing cars.  My husband’s buddy plays rugby and knits.  My guyfriend loves arranging flowers and wearing skirts as much as he loves target-shooting and watching Formula One.  I love arguing politics and watching figure skating with my mom and dad as much as I cringe at discussing shoes or watching football.  All of us are encouraged by our partners, demonstrating that our fears of persecution for such gender-bender are usually reinforced not by the opposite sex but, as Ashely Judd so eloquently pointed out last month, by our peers. 

Many men try to talk their girlfriends out of wearing makeup, while many women are supportive of—and often intrigued to the point of being attracted to—men who adopt traditionally feminine activities.  (If it weren’t the case, “Too bad he’s gay!” wouldn’t be the famous expression it is.)  Despite this, women thrust ludicrous beauty standards upon themselves, making catty comments about each other’s supposed failures, while men police one another with gay slurs.  That these cultural rules bear so much repeating signifies that they are indeed rules, not facts.   A glance at history and across cultures demonstrates that they are fashions.  That enforcing them requires scare tactics—“You’ll never get laid!” “You’ll never land a man!”—should land the final blow to their credibility.

 

 

In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)

 

The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:

 

 

Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:

 

 

Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?

 

 

* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.

Female Privilege

14 Apr

(Rates of violence worldwide, used under CC license via)

 
 
Recently at Feministing, Cara Hoffman wrote about violence that targets men, setting off an angry debate. Most commenters rightly supported the idea of feminism openly discussing the ways in which men are specifically victimized, but there were some who said this had no place in the movement. Such a women-only approach to feminism is indeed sexism that, like male chauvinism, will never be successful as long as it is determined to concern itself with only one half of the population. The hero and heroine gender tradition oppresses men, women and those who identify as neither. As women, we should never be so insecure as to ignore anyone’s true disenfranchisement or to deny the privileges patriarchy automatically bestows upon us.  

Yes, being female comes with certain privileges under patriarchy. (And no, I don’t mean Phyllis Schlafly’s you-get-your-restaurant-meals-paid-for-so-be-happy-staying-out-of-the-workforce sort of “privilege.”) Privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background. That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is the essence of injustice. 

Men face oppressive double-standards in dating and the family unit that I will address in a later post, but, in the wake of the arrest of Trayvon Martin’s killer, I want to focus for now on prejudices against men that are truly life-threatening. Beginning at the personal level, my husband has been beaten up twice by strangers. My brother and several guyfriends have been attacked outside clubs by strangers. Others were shoved down the stairs and slammed against lockers in school by bullies. I’ve never once been challenged to fight as they have, just as they have never experienced sexual harassment as I have. Of course far too many women are beaten by both men and other women, just as far too many men are sexually assaulted by both women and other men, but my personal experience and my husband’s are representative of the increased risk each of us face for certain kinds of attack in our society. There’s no need to try to decide which is worse: the threat of sexual assault or the threat of coming to blows. Both can end in the worst possible way, both are always inexcusable. Both target people based on their apparent gender. 

As a woman, I am far less likely to be challenged to fight or to be suspected of violence by authorities. As a woman, I am automatically more trusted to be around children. As a woman living in the United States and Europe, I have never been asked to die for my country.  As a woman, I can express more affection to a member of my gender without fear of gay bashing than a man can. As a woman, I can buy products of any color without fear of gay bashing. As a woman who’s not physically strong, I don’t have to worry as much as a man does about being picked on by bullies looking for an easy target. As an achondroplastic woman, I’ve always been less likely to be confronted by an assailant looking to engage in dwarf tossing than an achondroplastic man is. As a woman, I am permitted to choose emotional fulfillment over professional success without being considered a failure. This is why homeless women attract less contempt than homeless men. And part of why men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. 

In a previous post discussing female sexuality, I quoted Chloe S. Angyal’s point that traditional gender roles consider sexuality a no-win situation for women, that any type of behavior we choose can be seen as an invitation to sexual assault. For men, the same Catch-22 can apply for men regarding violence. Looking tough? You’re a threat that needs to be knocked down. Looking vulnerable? You’re the perfect victim to pounce on. If you are identifiable as a minority through your appearance or behaviors, you’d better make sure you avoid the wrong parts of town, which, in some cases, may include your entire home town or country. Or shoot first. 

Like the virgin/whore cycle with which women are encumbered, men are confronted with the brute/wuss standard from the earliest of ages. You’re a monster if you use your fists to solve your problems, but you’re a sissy if you can’t. Non-violent young men must endure society’s suspicion that they are prone to be violent while at the same time enduring their own vulnerability as a victim of violence. The reality of violence against women can never be denied or downplayed, but neither can violence against men, who are 2 to 4 times more likely to be killed by violence than women. Because of the pressures of the traditional model of masculinity, men are far less likely than women to seek help after being threatened or assaulted. 

Most violence enacted upon boys and men is by other boys and men, and this proves that, as with violence against women, the solution is not to condemn a gender, but to condemn an attitude. Googling “female privilege” results in some very creepy websites, wherein men rage about women who won’t sleep with them after they held the door for them, and patriarchy relies on this polarization of the genders for survival.  Despite what so many of those misogynistic websites claim, women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who embrace traditional gender roles because we know that those traditions screw everyone over, including men.  That’s why we unite with men against them, taking them apart bit by bit, non-violently.    

  

 

Four Tiers of Fear

31 Mar

 

“How DARE you call me a racist!” 

We’ve all heard that one before, and it’s becoming ever more frequent with the debate over Trayvon Martin’s death.  Marriage equality opponents have been adopting the same tone over the past few years, claiming “homophobic” is now an insult.  In the video posted above, Jay Smooth makes an excellent argument for shifting the focus from criticizing actions instead of people in order to spark more productive dialogue about racism and this can be applied to any discussion about xenophobia. 

But outrage at any charges of xenophobia is not only an issue of grammar.  This outrage usually relies on the assumption that “racist” or “homophobic” automatically denotes a Neo-Nazi level of vitriol.  (This is why it’s frequently accompanied by the protest, “Some of my best friends are black/gay/dwarfs!”)  The outrage silences any discussion about the more insidious forms of chauvinism, and this is the very discussion that needs to happen, because the most insidious forms are the most ubiquitous. 

Most people who harbor transphobic, racist, ableist, sexist, lookist, ethnocentric or homophobic views are not Neo-Nazis.  Most would never physically harm anyone, and as Jay Smooth demonstrates, most would never admit to being xenophobic.  My theory is that chauvinism appears in society today in four different forms:

***

1. Violence: Both organized and individual violence, though of course the more organized, the more terrifying.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center reports this month that hate groups are on the rise in the United States.)  A hate crime should not necessarily be punished more severely than any other case of assault or murder, but its designation is an essential counter-statement by society to the statement the violence was intended to make.  While the most horrific form of xenophobia, violence is also the least common.

2. Overt Animosity: Harassment and disrespect that falls short of violence.  It’s insulting someone to their face, knowingly using slurs, arguing in earnest against someone’s human rights.  It’s refusing to hire, date or talk to someone because they belong to a certain ethnic group, or because they do not belong to a certain ethnic group.  It’s parents disowning their children for being gay, trans or disabled.  It’s the guy I witnessed at the mall yesterday who tapped a Chinese woman on the shoulder, closed his eyes and babbled, “Ching-chong-chang!” before dashing off.  It’s the Yale Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity’s pledge, which included the chant, “No means yes!  Yes means anal!”  It’s the New Orleans cop saying Travyon Martin was a “thug and… deserved to die like one.”  Because the intention is either to provoke or dismiss the victim, it’s extremely difficult to find a constructive counter-argument.  Beyond ignoring such provocations because they are beneath us, our only hope is to appeal to any capacity for empathy the offenders may have when they are not in a provocative mood.  Such cruelty always stems from profound personal insecurities.         

3. Covert Animosity: Disrespect behind someone’s back.  This usually occurs when the speaker thinks they are surrounded by their “own kind,” and thus unlikely to offend anyone present with their slurs or jokes.  We’ve all heard at least one relative or coworker talk this way.  Often an environment encourages such disrespect and the peer pressure to join in is high.  Often someone will insult an entire minority privately but be utterly decent when meeting an individual from that minority.  A friend of mine once dismissed a boy band on TV as “a bunch of fags” just hours after he’d been raving to me about my awesome neighbor, who he knew is openly gay.  Sometimes this behavior is excused on the grounds that the speakers are from “a different generation,” an excuse I rarely accept since those with more progressive views can often be found in the same generation.

4. The Xenophobic Status Quo: The stereotypes and privilege that surround us.  Most of us have some of these prejudices without knowing it because we have been bombarded with them from birth on.  It’s the invisibility of minorities in the media and the social segregation in public that causes us to stare when we see certain people.  It’s the jokes that rely on the assumption that all heterosexuals find gay sex, intersexuality or transsexuality at least a little gross.  Or the assumption that physical disabilities, mental disabilities and physical deformities are always tragic and sometimes morbidly fascinating.  It’s the virgin/whore standard to which Western women are still held, leading us to comment far more on the appropriateness of their clothes and promiscuity than on men’s.  It’s our collective misogyny, homophobia and transphobia that converge to make us wonder why a man would ever want to wear a dress, but not why a woman would want to wear jeans.  It’s the prevalence of chauvinist expressions in our language (e.g. “Congressman,” “flesh-colored”) and of chauvinist traditions in our books, films and legends (e.g. our god is a white male) that makes them difficult to avoid and easy to reiterate.  It’s our demanding transgendered people wait for the rest of us to “get used” to the idea of their transitioning instead of questioning our belief in the gender binary.  It’s our view of every person who belongs to a minority not as an individual but as an example representing that minority with every move they make.  It’s the assumption that a difference upsets normalcy in lieu of the concession that normalcy is a delusion.  The privileges bestowed by our society on some members at the exclusion of others, rewarding those who have done nothing but be born with characteristics considered “normal,” are perhaps the most insidious reinforcement of these prejudices.

***

There is a danger to placing too much emphasis on the differences between the four tiers—I never want to end up in a conversation where people’s actions are excused as being “only Tier 4 sexist”—because all four tiers feed off each other.  They don’t exist in a vacuum.  The non-violent ideas of covert animosity and the xenophobic status quo provide confrontational people with a means of choosing their victims.  Conversely, regularly seeing society’s long tradition of hate crimes and public humiliation both in our history books and in our everyday news is what leaves us all dangerously unsurprised by the less belligerent forms of disenfranchisement many of us help perpetuate. 

Yet it is important to distinguish between these manifestations of fear in order to avoid the assumption that only violence and overt animosity qualify as xenophobia.  That assumption lets millions of people off the hook.  You don’t have to belong to the Westboro Baptist Church in order to have homophobic views.  You don’t have to belong to the NPD or the BNP or the Georgia Militia in order to have racist views.  You don’t have to wait in a dark alley for a stranger in order to commit rape.  You don’t have to threaten someone in order to to make them feel unwelcome.  Our society has been built on many xenophobic assumptions, making it very easy for all of us to pick some of them up along the way.  The fight for equality aims to make it more and more difficult, but it needs to be able to recognize its targets and use tactics suitable to each. 

I make these distinctions in the hopes of facilitating the conversation on chauvinism.  Yet it should come as no surprise that chauvinism is difficult to discuss because, in the words of Jay Smooth, it’s a system that has been designed to insult and subjugate.  In other words, it’s hard to speak politely about the idea of being impolite. 

 

 

On Not Being Thought of as “Suspicious”

24 Mar

Like many horrified readers, I’ve been following the news of the murder of Trayvon Martin this week, waiting for more information, waiting to see if his case will even be tried.  His killer, George Zimmerman, has yet to be arrested, protected by a seven year-old Florida law called “Stand Your Ground,” which was enacted after hurricane lootings and which essentially promotes vigilante justice.  No matter how the legal system deals with Zimmerman, if at all, Trayvon Martin—like Amadou Diallo before him—will never be able to tell his side of the story. 

Those of us who choke back tears on sight of Trayvon’s picture do so with one thought echoing in our heads: What if it had been me.  Except there is a system in place that makes many of us edit that thought into What if it had been my little brother or What if it had been my best friend because we are automatically less vulnerable, because we are not men and/or we are not black.  That’s what privilege is.  And it tastes terrible to anyone with a conscience.

While the extent to which Trayvon’s killer was willing to pursue an unarmed boy may be exceptional, his prejudice against the boy is anything but.  White privilege does not only give most white people in North America, Oceania and Europe the benefit of the doubt, but it frees us of the burdens of having to represent our race with every step we take in public.  In public we are judged as individuals, not examples. 

Of course younger people will always be eyed with more suspicion of violence than older people, but finding oneself at the intersection of youth, maleness and black ethnicity automatically attracts such suspicion like nothing else.  Unlike President Obama, I’ve never once been followed by security guards simply upon entering a shopping center.  Unlike a friend from Côte d’Ivoire, I can go on vacation anywhere in Europe, even though I’m not a European citizen.  I take these freedoms so much for granted that I view them as basic rights, but since they are only accorded to some citizens, they are privileges

In this NPR article, Corey Dade talks about advice his parents gave him as a young man built on their experience of being black in public in the United States.  Cynicism would consider it just another set of privileges to add my list, but it’s been a while since I’ve read anything so humbling.  I’ve never once worried about police officers surrounding my parents’ house after I went out to retrieve something from the car.  I’ve never had to.  That others do makes me lucky.  In the coldest sense of the word.

 

 

When It Comes to Sex, Fair Is Fair

17 Mar

Boy Toy(Image by Ian used under CC license via)

 

Disclaimer: This post is going to talk a lot about sex, so for my relatives out there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

***

I was recently walking around Tokyo’s Electric Town, a sensory overload of video game stores, electronics boutiques, and maid cafés.  Wait, what?  The young women outside these cafés were dressed in lacy maids’ outfits, complete with fishnets, platform shoes and cat ears on their heads.  Addressing their customers as “Master,” they apparently serve them on one knee, providing spoon-feedings and massages to those willing to pay extra.  These cafés were everywhere.

The guy accompanying me probably sensed my feminist judgment before I voiced it.  “So, what would have to change for you to be okay with it?” he asked. 

Quite simply, half the cafés would cater to female customers, hosted by provocatively dressed, eager-to-please, teenage-looking boys.  Half the people on the street in Tokyo are women, but the maid cafés offer them only work, not service.  No wonder nerd women feel so alone.  But it’s not fair to single out Electric Town.  Every well-known naughty incarnation of sex from the Playboy Mansion to token event dancers embodies the same problem: Whether selling dominance or submission, it’s all for the straight male customer.  In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine has identified one of the panes of the glass ceiling to be the not uncommon tradition of businessmen bonding by going to strip clubs together.  The most a straight female customer can hope for at such venues is to be bored, however much her partner may hope she’s taking down notes. 

Just as the word “doctor” or “lawyer” almost always causes a listener to envision a man, the word “escort,” or “stripper” evokes a woman.  Girls are aware of this from the earliest of ages.  Many have argued with me that the lack of lascivious fare catering to female clients is indicative of supply and demand; women aren’t as interested in commercial forms of sex, so there aren’t any.  It is true that the demand may not be overt enough for the market to notice, but this is not because it is non-existent.  It is because, like the demand for non-heteronormative sexuality, it has been discouraged for millennia. 

Men are animals, they can’t help it, goes the traditional view.  But women are not and thus they should only be sexual when satisfying men’s desires, either by playing the role of the virgin he wants to have a family with or the whore he wants to have fun with.  Yet if women’s sex drive is indeed naturally lower than men’s, why are so many societies so concerned with suppressing it? 

Around the world from Kuwait to Kansas, authoritarians go to great lengths to reduce if not altogether prohibit female sexual expression.  Over 92 million girls have undergone genital mutilation in Africa alone in order to reduce their libido.  American evangelical Christians oppose mandating the HPV vaccine for pre-teen girls, arguing that reducing the fear of cervical cancer will increase girls’ promiscuity.  In Haiti, Jordan, Syria and Morocco, “honor” killings and crimes of passion in instances of adultery are still legally permissible (only) when it is a female who has had pre-marital or extramarital sex.  A 2002 U.N. report found legislative provisions allowing for partial defense of “honor” killings in Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Peru, the Palestinian National Authority, and Venezuela.  Let me repeat: Politicians, religious leaders and parents endorse scaring women with the threat of murder, others with the threat of cancer, to control their sexuality. 

I’m sure this sounds outrageously antiquated to most readers, but aside from the fact that it is a grave reality for women in many cultures, vestiges of this machismo endure in secular culture.  Guys still try to insult each other by attacking their mothers’ sex lives, and women’s bodies and promiscuity are still discussed far more than men’s.  Have you ever heard anyone say, “Your dad’s a whore”?  Or heard a guy who won’t put out described as “frigid”?  Chloe Angyal summed it up beautifully at New York’s Slutwalk this past October:

The idea behind the word “slut,” and the beliefs and behavior that it justifies, is alive and well.  This idea says that sex decreases a woman’s worth.  This idea says that a woman who steps outside the bounds of acceptable femininity by enjoying sex, or seeking sex, or having a lot of sex, deserves whatever sexual violence is done to her… This idea says that almost anything a woman does, says, wears or is, can be used to justify that violence. Are you confident and outgoing?  That could have been construed as flirting, and that is practically consent.  Are you shy and reticent?  You should have been confident and outgoing enough to firmly say “no.”  Are you considered attractive by the standards of our culture?  Well, you know how men get around pretty women.  Are you considered unattractive by the standards of our culture?  What man would force himself on an ugly woman?  You must have asked for it.  This idea sets up a no-win situation, where no woman is pure enough to be blameless.

However, as women’s scantily clad bodies are condemned in Congress and in churches while being used to advertise everything from ice cream to phone companies, I suspect it’s not only the suppression of female desire at work.   When I imagine men being marketed as boy toys, the first obstacle that comes to mind is homophobia.  I’m sure you can just hear the shouts of “Yuck!  Sick!” that would erupt if male butts were given as much attention on television as female breasts are, or if guy-on-guy action were insinuated in music videos as frequently as lesbianism is.  Men who dislike the self-objectifying performances of Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams or male ballet dancers usually call them gay slurs.  I feel safe in assuming similar insults would be hurled by many male Star Wars fans had the master at Jabba the Hut’s palace been a madam who enslaved Luke Skywalker on a chain in a pair of golden briefs.  In 2008, a study found nearly 40% of women appearing in films wore sexually revealing clothing, compared to 7.8% of men, proving that straight women put up with sexy representations of their gender with the same frequency that straight men are shielded from it.  The homophobia behind these cultural patterns is the very same that restricts gay sexuality to the gay district.  And it is often to these corners that lusty women go.  Sex and The City was addressing a real problem when it encouraged women to watch gay male porn in order to see men that are truly sexualized. 

However, as discussed in my last post, sexualization comes at a price when it is the result of overwhelming demand, not free choice.  The American Psychological Association says a person is sexualized when their “value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; [when] a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; [when] a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.”  Self-objectification is a free choice an individual can make only insofar as that individual has never been pressured into it.  Bombarded with the media images cited above, women are taught to self-objectify from girlhood on.  Even the professional dominatrix, no matter how powerful, is fulfilling a male customer’s requests.  The beauty standards embodied by these sexualized models result in women and gay men suffering from eating disorders at far higher rates than straight men.  In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes:

I object—strenuously—to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage.  Long, long, long before marriage.  I… want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is.  I want her to do it for herself.  I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire.  I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy.  The virgin/whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to see self-objectification as a female rite of passage. 

Reciprocity is the key word.  If you want your girlfriend to accompany you to a maid café, you’d better be willing to follow her to a Fantasy Boys’ Strip Tease.  If you want her to learn a naughty routine to add some spark, you’d better learn one for her.  If you want your wife to be fine with you sleeping around, you’d better encourage her to have affairs.  If you ask for oral sex, you’d better be willing to give it.  And don’t you dare make your daughter wear a purity ring until marriage if you won’t demand the same of your son or your own self.  Indeed, if the social pressure that urges women to submit were diverted to straight men, the resulting dialogue would reveal a great deal about how much free choice really enters into it. 

Studies in sex-positive feminism and BDSM culture reveal that many self-confident, consenting individuals are interested in the sex industry, but without the gender disparity pop culture promotes.  And while it is true that many women have no interest in commercial forms of sex like pornography or strip clubs, nor do many men.  Whether the red light district is silly or sexy is a matter of taste.  Whether it is male chauvinist is not.  In the words of one YouTube commenter—a rare source of inspiration—“this is what music videos would look like if women ran the world.

Look ridiculous?  In the words of Nadine Gordimer, “So many sensual moves are, if you set yourself outside of them.”  It’s no more ridiculous than the song it parodies or the cat ears donned by the Electric Town maids.  If every second maid were replaced with men posing like Bret and Jemaine do, I’d find nothing wrong with Electric Town, except for its carbon footprint. 

 

 

Today’s Princesses: Teaching Them “That Self-Absorption Is The Same As Self-Confidence”

10 Mar

When I was growing up, I had a hard time remembering that McDonald’s and Disney were not the same company.  I still have a hard time remembering that.  Both aggressively market products few can spend their entire lives resisting because their advertising budgets are unrivaled and because they have mastered the recipes for broad appeal.  Both are aggressively exported to other countries, representing all that is optimistic, colorful, unsubtle and indulgent about America.  Both are harmless in small doses but unhealthy when they attain the monopoly on a child’s life they’ve been aiming for.

I’ve just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.  Like Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, Orenstein examines a corner of our culture that does not take constructive criticism well.  It is because of the magnitude of the pink princess deluge driven by Disney and their ilk combined with their defensive refusal to admit any fault or responsibility—“It’s what every girl wants!”—that her work deserves such a warm welcome.

For any of her failures to perfectly repair the girlie-girl culture in 200 pages, Orenstein offers several impeccable articulations of the problems.  Princess packages are problematic when they impose rote scripts and must-have shopping lists, stifling rather than encouraging creativity.  Sexualization is problematic when the implied goal is not to attain pleasure but to please a man in exchange for being approved of as pretty.  Social networking online is problematic when “the self becomes a brand to be marketed to others rather than developed from within.”  And the Muppets are problematic when, for all their ingenuity, they still can’t come up with more than two female Muppets.  I think I’m going to end up quoting her a lot.

The New York Times praised her book while emphasizing that it is little cause for alarm seeing as most girls outgrow the pink princess phase.  As a former Snow White wannabe, I know this can be true, but I had kick-ass feminists in my life to help me along the way, including a dad who sewed my costumes.  I hesitate to agree with the Times’s assertion that “most” move on.   Orenstein provides depressing figures on the rise of female eating disorders, the recent drop in computer science degrees, the persistent problem of young women equating “feeling good” with “looking hot.”  Even as I tend to surround myself with self-confident, intellectual women who define themselves as much more than their prettiness and their purchases, I regularly encounter those who fit into Orenstein’s figures.  They are the ones whose fathers only gave them credit cards, never engaging them in intellectual discussion, and who now avoid debate like an ugly outfit.  They are the ones who know that appearing pretty means non-threatening, so self-confidence is tossed out for coyness, self-assertion is abandoned for pouting, and wit is relinquished for fawning giggles in the presence of men.  They are the ones who torture themselves over their looks—“I’m so ugly! I’m so fat!”—in order to land a man and then keep him from cheating, spending more of their day unhappy than any other people I know.  They are the ones who have not left the princess phase because they do not know how to. 

Too often criticism of the princess culture is misconstrued as bitter resentment by those who just don’t have what it takes to wow the guys or woo the pageant judges.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is sincere concern inspired by the hard evidence of the very real dangers that motivates critics like Orenstein:

There is… ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy.  And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.  They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners wear condoms. 

Depression, eating disorders, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy are nothing to sneeze at.  Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Houston found women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who don’t.  A Rutgers University study found they are also more likely to be in a relationship and their partners report more satisfaction with their sex lives.  Isn’t that the happily ever after every parent wants for their daughter?      

Sometimes Orenstein’s feminist alternatives to the pink princesses sound soft compared to the roar of her reprimands.  Focusing only on the (admittedly daunting) price of the dolls, she misses a major opportunity to understand the educational, multi-cultural brilliance of the American Girl history series.  Disney’s The Princess and The Frog promotes independence, battles lookism and exemplifies egalitarian romance in all the ways Beauty and the Beast failed to, yet Orenstein’s review of the film was as weak as its box office performance.  Princess Fiona of Shrek is bad-ass and the third film in the series parodies princesses better than anything else it takes a jab at.  However, I wonder how necessary any model of romance—feminist or traditional—is for the preschool set.

Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the pre-pubescent girls and the post-pubescent ladies in books and toy stores, and on the screen.  Sparkles and daisies are innocuous. Unrealistic beauty standards and boy-crazy storylines are not.  The original Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite were not the cleverest female role models, but they acted their age and thus appropriately for their target audience.  Their cadres of friends were coed.  They regularly outwitted male villains—proving that girls’ problems aren’t limited to cat fights—and the reward was always a happier world, either more colorful or fruit-filled.  Like Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite demonstrated that to be cute is to be round and childlike, not dangerously busty-yet-skinny like Barbie and the Disney Princesses.  But both Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have since been redesigned to at least suggest adolescence:     

 

Characters that were not invented first and foremost to sell dolls and costumes are usually a safer bet.  Lilo and her sister Nani of Lilo and Stitch are two of the best female characters in cinema history, let alone the Disney canon.  Meanwhile, Pippi Longstocking is worshipped in Northern Europe by boys and girls alike.  Indeed, wouldn’t a more pro-active welcoming of boys into the princess culture dilute a lot of its sexism?  How about dads reading The American Girls to their sons as often as moms read Harry Potter to their daughters?  Orenstein does recognize the potential for that revolution, citing a Creighton University study that showed half of boys aged 5 to 13 chose to play with “girls’ toys” as often as “boys’ toys,” but only after they were promised that their fathers wouldn’t find out about it.

Like the families relying on fast-food several times a week, many parents find it difficult to resist the pink marketers’ schemes and the peer pressure foisted upon their daughters in play groups.  There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink.  But just as we have demanded healthier Happy Meals and more farmers’ markets, we should demand more varied toys, activities and role models for our children, refusing any monochrome model of girlhood.

 

 

The Make-Believe Dwarfs of My Childhood

3 Mar

lookism

(Image by Paul Bailey used under CC license via)

 

Though it often can be the best way to get a message across, art complicates politics because it mixes matters of taste with matters of justice.  One lends itself to reason, the other doesn’t.  Too often sentimental feelings about a film or song with offensive elements will result in fans denying the offense altogether.  “Little House on the Prairie isn’t racist!  I grew up on it and I turned out fine!”  Maybe you did thanks to your innate curiosity about the experiences of others or inspiring teachers in your life, but you didn’t learn anything valuable about civil rights from that book.  I grew up on Dumbo and I think it is an artistically brilliant film with many good messages, one of which is the problem of lookism.  However, getting a white actor to put on his best black voice to play a character named “Jim Crow” in the heyday of the minstrel shows was a supremely stupid idea.  We shouldn’t deny ourselves our personal tastes, but that shouldn’t preclude calling out the artists’ mistakes.   

Likewise, we shouldn’t cry wolf over artwork that simply doesn’t match our tastes.  I’m one of the few people on earth who doesn’t enjoy The Lord of the Rings—I saw it for the first time in my twenties and fell asleep—but that’s primarily because I get bored by fantasy epics that are predominantly serious.  (I’m not wild about The Chronicles of Narnia either.  If there’s going to be magic, I prefer the tongue-in-cheek tone maintained in the worlds of Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum or the Pirates of the Caribbean.)  It is sometimes difficult to divorce my dislike of the style from my annoyance that the Lord of the Rings definition of a dwarf receives more attention in almost every corner of our culture than the one based on reality.  Google “dwarf” right now in the image search and see how long you have to wait until a real human being is featured.  But neither Peter Jackson nor J. R. R. Tolkien is solely responsible for this; the latter of course drew this definition from the fantasy tradition.  And the use of dwarfs in fantasy is not always problematic. 

Peter Dinklage has demonstrated that dwarfism is no more important than skin color or foot size in Game of Thrones.  And while I couldn’t sit through Lord of the Rings as an adult, I have a special place in my heart for the 1988 film Willow, which was panned by almost every critic I respect.  Perhaps my nostalgia and childhood crush on Warwick Davis blinds me to the film’s artistic faults, but my enjoyment of it was rooted in politics before I even knew the word “politics.”  Because for once a dwarf was the main character.  And he looked like a real dwarf; he wasn’t wearing any pointed ears or goblin nose or orange face-paint.  And I wanted to be Sorsha, the bad-ass warrior princess.  Yes, she’s a damsel in distress during the final battle, but it’s 3′ 6″ Warwick Davis who wins that battle for her, not buff Val Kilmer. 

While I’m uncomfortable with fantasy’s tradition of insisting that dwarfs are a separate race and thus, in many cases, non-human, I loved Willow for giving both the dwarf-sized people and the average-sized people names free of connotation (“nelwyns” and “dakinis”).  They are neutral words that demonstrate one of the advantages of neologisms.  (Though I’ll admit the film’s line “Stupid dakini!” has echoed in my head at various points in my life.)  The film also uses the fictional word “peck” as the thinly veiled equivalent to “midget,” an insult the eponymous character must endure from dakinis throughout the film, adding more gravitas to his saving the day and personal appeal to dwarf viewers like myself.  Too often in fantasy, physical characteristics are indicative of personality traits.  This is an occasionally racist, always lookist device that disenfranchises hideous hags, macho musclemen, dark demons, pretty princesses, and innocent invalids.  Willow offers a welcome respite.  As sappy and as simple as the message is—anyone can be a hero—it bears repeating.

Speaking of lookist, I also adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a kid.  I always played Snow White, of course—what child doesn’t imagine themselves as the attention-getting protagonist?—but I was also secretly proud that the first feature-length animated film, one of the most famous of the Grimms’ fairy tales, included dwarfs who weren’t ludicrously unrealistic.  They were kind, they had no mysticism and, as much as I loved her and her poufy dress, they had far more personality than Snow White herself.  For these reasons, I didn’t mind using them as an example when children asked me about my size.  My mother once said, “We’ll write to Disney and tell them most dwarfs aren’t bashful or dopey at all!”  I recall at the time wishing she wouldn’t put a damper on a film I loved so much, but now I am grateful to her for fostering such moral vigilance in me.  

Because once I hit puberty, I instantly saw the problems.  Like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and scores of other films, Snow White asserts that male characters who are disabled or deformed can never hope to get the girl.  Considered innocent, asexual people, they are doomed to the Friend Zone.  And women with disabilities?  There aren’t many fairy tales about them.  The story emphasizes even in Snow White’s name that looks are everything.   

My childhood in combination with my experience with dwarfism endowed me with a nostalgia for stories I nevertheless was forced to analyze critically as I grew up, so I cannot deny either.  Everyone should keep a healthy distance between one’s understanding of the world and fairy tales.  My partner and I used the above image of Snow White on our wedding invitations, although we changed the slogan to “Everyone Is Beautiful”—a lesson I did not learn from Snow White herself, but from learning how my dwarfism conflicted with her.

 

 

Don’t Think They’ll Miss It

25 Feb

Rings (Image by Margot Trudell used under CC license via)

 

The French government has done away with “Mademoiselle,” the term of address for unmarried women, becoming the second country I know of to have officially done so.  The other country is my current residence, Germany, though most foreigners are unaware that “Fräulein” was tossed out in 1972 and sounds quite sexist today.  I have explained to my husband that many Americans use it because most of their knowledge of German comes from The Sound of Music, but he says any use by an American immediately evokes the image of U.S. Army soldiers cat-calling, “Hey, Fräulein…”  Every woman in Germany is addressed as “Frau” (literally, “woman”) and now every woman in France is “Madame” (“my lady”).  No more attention is given to their marital status than is given to the men’s.  It’s simple and I like it, especially in contrast to the Anglophone attempts at a solution, which have been anything but simple.

In English, the non-sexist term is the neologism “Ms.”  It’s pronounced “mizz,” possibly in a subconscious attempt to be as unphonetic in its spelling as “Mrs.”  Neologisms can be tremendously helpful because they can be devoid of connotation.  Take, for example, the word “cis.”  It has been invented for the purposes of referring to anyone who is not transsexual.  It avoids any insinuations of “normal” or “natural,” an all-too-frequent problem when discussing biological traits that deviate from the average and those that don’t. 

But neologisms are not always free of connotation.  I have met numerous women who buck the term “Ms.” based on its association with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, while others embrace it based on the same association, and so all three terms continue to be used.  In order to avoid offense in Anglophone culture, it is necessary to know both the woman’s marital status and her political leanings.  Non-native speakers of English frequently find themselves tongue-tied and brain-cramped trying to differentiate between “Ms.” and “Miss.”  (“Which one’s sexist again?  And how do you pronounce it?”)  Swedes find this particularly silly, having done away with honorific titles altogether in a refusal to draw any attention to marital status, gender, age, or class.  

Growing up with a mother who did not take my father’s surname, I argued that “Ms. Sullivan” was the only appropriate title for her because “Miss Sullivan” would imply she wasn’t married and “Mrs. Sullivan” would imply it was my father’s name.  But is the latter really true?  Every day I have lived in Germany, both before and after my wedding, I have been addressed as “Frau Sanford.”  If, before my marriage, anyone were ever to call me “Fräulein Sanford,” it would sound as ridiculous as calling my husband “Master Lehr.”  Treating women and men equally is often not just the fairest way of doing things, but the easiest.

 

 

Working with the F Word

12 Feb

audre lorde rough paper background by Starving ArtistIf you’ve explored this blog, you’ve heard me toss around that lovely word “feminism.”  And I bet a few of you cringed, rolled your eyes or ignored it: “Feminism is the idea that men and women are equal.  We get it.”

Traditional gender roles inflict thousands of double-standards on women and men, and I’ll discuss them in greater detail soon.  But feminism is so much more than that.  Despite the “fem” in feminism, women’s rights are neither the limit nor the core of equality.  As Gloria Steinem recently said, it’s about challenging hierarchies.  It’s about saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”  There is no other word for opposing all hierarchies based on characteristics about which we have no choice: our ethnicity, our sexuality, our race, our gender identity, our class background, our physical traits and capabilities, our mental capacities.  There should be.

Because chauvinism is the common enemy.  Feminism started off aiming to liberate women.  And that includes poor women.  And women of every possible ethnic background.  And in every country.  And women with physical differences and disabilities.  And women with mental disabilities and psychiatric disorders.  And women who are attracted to women.  And women who are attracted to both genders.  And women who transition into their sex.  And those who transition into another.  And those whose biology or sense of self does not correlate to either male or female.  And those who are men.  As a woman with achondroplasia, how could I ignore anyone who is screwed over for the way the way they were born?  As a woman with achondroplasia who chose to undergo controversial limb-lengthening procedures, how could I condemn anyone forced to make deeply personal decisions directly linked to their identity?  And the questions logically expands to: How could anyone?

Do “human rights” or “egalitarianism” adequately imply opposition to any manifestation of chauvinism?  Labels are so problematic.  Internet and library searches for “egalitarianism” usually produce discussions of class and poverty, while “human rights” tends toward macrocosmic, international issues of war, poverty and suffrage.  In effect, these terms can be narrower or broader than feminism.  Yet there are advantages to redefining a well-known term like feminism rather than trying to invent and disperse a new one.  When self-proclaimed feminist Amanda Palmer defended a project objectifying conjoined twins, Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown gave her the lecture of a lifetime that sums it up better than I’ve ever heard:

… this “feminism” thing: it’s not for some people, it’s not for you specifically, it’s not a fun little badge you get to slap onto your actions when it suits you. It is a system of carefully worked-out thoughts, which has been developed for many, many years by many thousands of people, and one of the most unavoidable parts of this system, which we can’t get away from if we are thinking for even a second with any ounce of intellectual rigor or honesty, is that everybody matters. Everybody matters precisely as much as you do. Which is why you don’t get to use them as a means of gratifying yourself with attention when the attention is good, or deny them the right to be heard or respected when the attention is bad.

Feminist history is stained with instances of female chauvinism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, and continues to be by the likes of many.  And we’ve got to keep calling that out with the same vigilance we accord any issue.  As the xenophobic view claims that multiculturalism and universal human rights are inefficient and the only battle worth fighting is your own, a non-violent society only functions when based on the concept of reciprocity.  Despite the structures in place that assume otherwise, everybody’s health, job, relationships, sex life, family, and happiness matter exactly as much as yours do.

That’s what the F word means to my husband, my mom and my dad, my sister-in-law, my closest friends, my favorite teachers, and me.  And if that still makes you cringe, if you still find the label too problematic, leave me a well-thought out argument in the comments.