Monthly Archives: June 2011

Abortion Isn’t That Simple, Mr. Douthat

Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times conservative columnists whose pieces I occasionally force myself to read, wrote an article yesterday about sex-selective abortion. In short, he claimed that the reason 160 million women were “missing” (that is, the reason they were so outnumbered in many countries like India and China, as well as other nations in the Balkans and Central Asia) was because they were “killed” via sex-selective abortion. In his words, the women weren’t “missing,” they were “dead.” (He also claims that the author of the book he cites, Mara Hvistendahl of the book “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” appropriates the issue to one of patriarchy, of greater social issues and inequities – which I agree with. He then says that “the sense of outrage that pervades her story seems to have been inspired by the missing girls themselves, not the consequences of their absence,” saying that she is more upset by the idea of abortion itself than she is about the issues surrounding abortion. Don’t you think that’s for her to decide? And doesn’t it seem she’s already decided what she thinks based on her book?)

Douthat, however, manages to contradict the crux of his argument near the start of his column.

He begins by saying “female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less.” He then quotes Hvistendahl as saying “women use their increased autonomy to select for sons,” because male offspring bring higher social status. In countries like India, sex selection began in “the urban, well-educated stratum of society,” before spreading down the income ladder.

If this were the case – if in fact women had become truly empowered in their respective lands – culturally, politically, economically – then why would they be aborting based on the opposite – that men in their communities are still holding the cards? Are they imagining that men still hold positions of power and wealth in their countries, or are they living the ramifications of that painful reality everyday? Women do have some increased autonomy in many of these regions. But guess what? This autonomy has likely served to highlight the still very real inequities and disparities that exist in their communities, which contributes to the rates of sex-selective abortion. If women see which sex has the higher status, and one of the few autonomous decisions they can make is to choose the sex of their baby – they are likely going to choose the one with more status. This upsetting power dynamic shows just how far away true empowerment is for many of these women and their communities. If they felt their children would have the same opportunities if they were female than if they were male, the sex selection abortion Douthat decries would actually decrease. It is not the responsibility of the female fetus to ensure she is treated with the same respect and equality as the male fetus. Douthat seems to really care about female fetuses – but seems less interested in addressing the massive social, political, and economic issues that create so many difficulties for them once born. (His colleagues Paul Krugman and Nick Kristof seem to have handles on that. Too bad they were off yesterday.)

It seems that Douthat wants to push for the feelings of regret and remorse about abortion itself, separate from the issues surrounding it. Does sex-selection abortion sadden me? Yes. Does aborting a fetus that indicates it will have Down Syndrome sadden me? Yes. You know what else makes me sad? That a woman cannot afford a baby because she is single and has no familial or community support; because she has an abusive partner (homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women); because she has a low-wage hourly job that offers no maternity leave which could help her stay well while carrying the baby if needed; because she has no health insurance meaning she can’t access quality pre-natal care to make sure her baby would be healthy since we are systematically closing down those facilities that offer services for women who are uninsured (and also help provide birth control to prevent pregnancy!); because she has no way to pay for day care and she may have to quit her low-wage job to care for her baby; because she would then have no money for all the supplies, food, and developmental tools her baby would need to thrive which can lead to malnutrition, behavioral problems, child depression; because she could then become part of the 29.9% of families in poverty that are headed by single women, and her child could become part of the 35% of those in poverty who are under 18 years of age - the poverty rate for households headed by single women is significantly higher than the overall poverty rate.

We’ve cut child welfare services that aid women by the tens of millions in the past few years. Georgia alone cut over $10 million in Child Welfare Services. We’ve also cut subsidies that support adoption agencies – the organizations that help women find families that may be able to care for her baby were she to carry it to term – and who make sure these families are actually fit to do so! TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) provides women and families with aid so that children can be raised in their own homes or with relatives, instead of being placed in foster care and becoming wards of the state. How much have we cut from TANF? 17 of the poorest states, with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, have already stopped receiving funds.

Birth control, one might say? Sure – birth control is expensive, so if she doesn’t have health insurance, she isn’t likely to be able to afford birth control (hey, Planned Parenthood can help with that, too! Seeing a pattern?) And if her partner refuses to wear a condom? If she is in an abusive relationship, if she fears leaving her partner, if she relies on her partner for added economic security – she’s much less likely to argue with him about the condom use. Or even feel that she has the agency to begin a negotiation discussion at all.

These facts make me sad. And all of these facts might lead a woman to decide she can’t have a baby. And many things not listed here may lead a woman to decide that she will not have a baby. And that she will have an abortion. Is it my decision? No. It’s not. It’s not yours or Ross Douthat’s, either. Again, Douthat represents the contingent of pro-lifers who want to make it seem like pro-choicers are cheering the performing of abortions right and left. What we are cheering is the right for women and respect of women to make their own decision based on their very specific personal circumstances. And given the fact that the medical establishment has not agreed with the pro-life camp in claiming that fetuses before a month into the third trimester can feel pain (reacting to stimuli does not equal pain, to reiterate, and pain without a cerebral cortex is seen by physicians as not possible), which has most recently become the pro-life camp’s wildly off-base rationale for preventing a woman’s right to choose, and given the fetus’ place of residence in the woman’s uterus as a part of her body, not as a human, these issues that Douthat sees as “sideline” are actually very much at the center of the argument. Bottom line – it’s the woman’s body. It’s the woman’s choice. She will be the one carrying it, she will be the one birthing it. No one else. So why should anyone else decide?

Additionally, it is not a crime for a woman to not want children. Since she is able to give birth, it is her decision as to when and how that will happen. Everything about her life and future will change once she has a baby. So she needs to be sure she is ready for that. How can one disagree with that? Douthat may not like it, but “the sense of outrage that pervades his story” (see what I did there? ;) ) seems to me more rooted in his anger and frustration with his opinion not being considered by women in these decisions and not being able to control what a woman decides to do about what is going on in her body.

All of the things I listed - the job issues, the healthcare issues, the family and community issues, the issues that arise when a child doesn’t have access to food, clothing, and developmentally appropriate stimulation - are the causes. So why don’t we start figuring out how we can mitigate those facts and issues instead of attacking the effect – the abortion – which is a decision women come to after weighing all of those facts and issues just discussed. Douthat’s fear tactics of talking about female fetuses strewn across Indian hospitals is scary imagery. So is this:

Photo thanks to ehow.com

And this:

Photo via Captain Hope's Kids Blog

And this:

Photo property of streetkidnews.blogsome.com

Want less abortions? How about providing health insurance, that covers both birth control and pre-post natal care? How about equal pay for equal work, so women are more financially and economically secure, providing them with the resources to stay out of poverty and keep their children out of it, too? How about child care in work environments, helping women who cannot afford day care can stay in their jobs and remain a part of the economy? While we’re at it, how about great public schools and clean community centers, so women know their children are being intellectually fed and socially stimulated in safe environments that help keep them out of more dangerous and potentially life-threatening social circles? How about comprehensive sex education so men and women know how to protect themselves not only from pregnancies but from diseases that can endanger a fetus and create complications during birth and cause health issues for them and their children – creating more expense, particularly if one has no health insurance.

Let’s talk then. And how about you follow me on Twitter?

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Education, Feminism, Health Education, Mental Health, Politics, Women's Health

Duke Nukem – Seriously?

I don’t play video games. I’m sure this comes as no surprise. The few times I have played a game it involved a furry animal working his way through some kind of tropical forest and the most violent it got was when he hit a villanous turtle on the head with a coconut. So, I am not familiar with Duke Nukem.

Of course, one Google search tells me he is a supremely popular, freakishly over-muscled, machine gun-wielding, hyper-aggressive action “hero” who is literally described in the Wikipedia entry as “frequently politically incorrect.” (Hilarious. And accurate.) His character profile also claims that when he was first introduced, he was a CIA operative hired to save Earth from Dr. Proton. This would maybe imply that the game involved some kind of strategy, particularly of the secret intelligence kind, and also perhaps had something to do with taking down an evil scientist who has discovered some kind of new microbe that could destroy the planet, or, you know, blah blah blah whatever. Because the point is, in my brief and terrifying foray into this video game’s website, I saw no evidence to suggest that this kind of thinking went into the development of this franchise, and that it’s just what you’d expect. A guy who looks intensely devoted to his steroid regimen, has a penchant for unloading 50 rounds into anything with tentacles, and who appears to live in a post-apocalyptic  land which is somehow still able to generously supply women with fetish outfits, bikinis, and manicures. Exhibit A – what greeted me as I came out of the subway this morning:

Thanks for this offensive shot, Gearbox Software!

I apologize for the blurriness factor – but in this image, our man Duke Nukem is sitting in a throne (of course, of course) while two women in schoolgirl outfits sit at his feet. The caption? “This game has bazookas. Both types.” Weapons, breasts, and a throne! What else could dudes possibly ask for? Well, actually…

In a video promo for the game on YouTube (if you’re going to watch this, take a deep breath – and I personally would say NSFW) it gets even worse. There are shots of Duke on a shooting rampage interspersed with what appears to be him walking into a room and seeing a switched-on vibrator skidding around the room. The nicest touch? A hazard sign is on the vibrator and we’re treated to a voiceover that says “You know you want to touch it.” This could be an over-analyzation (no), but I’m going there – a hazard symbol perhaps because Duke Nukem, for all his hyper-masculinity, is terrified of female sexuality? Terrified of the idea that a woman may be sexually satisfied without him? Afraid of anything other than the hetero-normative/man in power/man’s desire satisfied/woman as vehicle of this desire – kind of sex?

He then encounters two women – again in schoolgirl outfits – who at first seem like they might be fighting but then drop their weapons of choice to touch and caress each other in sexually suggestive ways. Duke is watching this while pointing a gun at them, and saying, “allll right, time for my reward.” What is the reward here? Watching two women engage in sexual activity? Shooting the women engaged in sexual activity? Keeping your weapon out and pointed at the women to ensure they continue engaging in the sexual activity? Many other reviews of Duke Nukem have also pointed out its violent sexual imagery and encouragement of sexually violent behavior towards women.

Let’s quickly discuss the schoolgirl outfits. Perhaps the most tired cliché of all, they hearken to this video game’s weakening of any strong female identities by putting them in little girls’ uniforms to negate any chance of adult agency. They also, disturbingly, speak to the pedophilic aspect of the schoolgirl craze, the sexualization of the vulnerable - children. Why do people who go after this fad not see how creepy it is? You are using a child’s outfit to turn you on.

So, just to tally up:

1) Fetishizing women in outfits meant for children = pedophilic sexualization of grown women and increasing one’s perception of their vulnerability

2) Referring to their breasts as “bazookas” = at once equating a woman’s body part with an anti-tank military weapon and objectifying women using an offensive antiquated slang for large breast size

3) Displays of a lesbian encounter that has nothing to do with a healthy, respectful relationship that happens to be between two women = everything to do with stereotypical exploitation and eroticization of lesbian relationships for the titillation of an armed psychopath

4) Pointing guns at women = ….pointing guns at women

5) Claiming that watching women engage in sexual activity with one another, encouraging women to engage in sexual activity with one another, threatening women with weaponry to continue engaging in sexual activity with one another, or forcing them to engage in any kind of sexual behavior with you is your reward = You deserve it – you deserve to be sexually gratified however you wish because you shot a bunch of Men in Black rejects. (Here we have voyeurism, sexual assault, physical assault, and manipulation – impressive, Duke!)

6) And…a vibrator skidding around a room. Because, you know…vibrators are always on the loose!!!

I do not need to sum this up any further. I think it just concludes on its own. With a WTF.

If you aren’t following me on Twitter, why don’t you start here?

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Filed under Defining Gender, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism, Violence

Yoplait and Miss USA

There has been much (rightful) celebration of the news that Yoplait has pulled their eating-disorder promoting and normalizing commercial that showed a woman agonizing over whether or not she should consume a piece of cheesecake and how many ways she would punish herself for doing so. You can watch the commercial below, but these reasons include: having just a bite, having a slice and a day of eating nothing else but celery, jogging after eating the cake, jogging while eating the cheesecake (cramps!?), eating half the cake and half the celery - had the commercial continued I wouldn’t have been surprised if the next thought was “or I could just vomit after eating it.” (Watch the video here.)

Interestingly, another ad had caught my eye this past week. This would be the teaser for the Miss USA pageant which aired last night, using footage from last year’s event. In the short, we are treated to shots of women in bikinis, sauntering around the stage in evening gowns, and taking to the microphone to tell us how they’d like to change the world. While this is happening, we have a narrator who guides us through the 10 – 15 second sequence with questions along the lines of “Who is she?” “What will she do next?” “Where will she go?” and so forth. But he punctuates this with what I’m assuming Mr. Trump (Master of Misogyny as I have noted before in this blog) thought was hilaaaaaarious: “When will she ever eat?” as we see the winner get crowned. As she accepts her bouquet, sash, and tiara, the host says: “How do you feel!?”

She replies giddily: “Ask me after I’ve had a pizza!”  Then everyone has a good chuckle.

That’s so funny! I had no idea it could be so amusing to poke fun at a woman who never eats, even though we are rewarding her lack of eating with a cash prize, a diamond tiara, a TV special, and a national title. Is it possible that the man who thought he was going to run for President has such a weak grasp of irony?

(While I didn’t originally want to link to the Miss USA pageant website, I just noticed that Richard Simmons is in one of the rotating pictures on the main page, and I think that is hilarious and amazing – if anyone can find out why, or a shot of him actually at the pageant, I’d love it.)

Not only can these ads act as triggers for people who have suffered from eating disorders, but as the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) noted specifically in regards to the Yoplait ad (but which also applies to the Miss USA ad), it normalizes very harmful and problematic behaviors, making the line between eating disorder and what one thinks are totally normal eating habits pretty blurry. The foundation of behaviorial science and developmental psychology is the Social-Cognitive Theory, which posits that people learn to act by watching the behaviors of others who are not only in their social network, but also behaviors that are promoted in their culture and society. Other theories also note that repetition of messages further normalizes them, making individuals, particularly those at more vulnerable developmental stages, feel included in what is considered “normal” if they participate in these behaviors. On the other hand, dangerously and sadly, it makes them feel ostracized if they do not participate in these behaviors. Unfortunately, for those watching this commercial, that means it teaches young women that obsessing over their body size and weight is a normal rite of passage, and that if they don’t do this they’re the abnormal ones. In terms of the Miss USA prompt, not only is media the medium for promoting the behavior, but the women doing the actual promoting are marketed as the ultimate ideal; the supposed be-all, end-all of female beauty. (I watched snippets of the pageant last night, and my favorite moment was when one of the women said her most noteworthy characteristic was “offering people hope” and she did this by “complimenting a woman on her earrings.” Spreading hope to all by commenting on one’s accessories! I had no idea it was so simple.)

The NEDA also said they were sure Yoplait meant no harm in making and promoting this ad, and I agree. I don’t think Yoplait was being malicious, or that they produced this thinking they would reignite eating disorders in recovering women or encourage young girls to calculate and barter with themselves over what they can and cannot eat. But what that shows is that the internal debate of this woman is already so normalized that it seemed like a way to reflect back onto women behavior that they would recognize as their own and identify with, making them want to buy the yogurt – the decision the woman ultimately makes at the end of the commercial. (I also worried about the “reward” aspect of the commercial, when the woman says “I’ve been good today, so I can have cake.” What kind of behavior is “good” behavior that warrants cake – eating a minimal number of calories? I don’t think she meant “good” in the sense of “I was a good samaritan today, so I can have a treat.”)

Last word – I get tired of people commenting on others’ weight. Even if they think they’re complimenting someone on losing it. At the end of the Yoplait commercial the agonized woman turns to her co-worker and says “and you’ve lost weight,” somewhat disappointingly as she then looks down at her own (normal) waist. All in all, the less attention we pay to other peoples’ fluctuating weights and how they make us feel, the less likely we are to be unhappy with ourselves and think there’s need for some kind of improvement. Perhaps at the end of the commercial she could have said “what a healthy choice – yogurt! Maybe I’ll have some of that, and also a little cake which looks delicious and not at all like it’s going to ruin my life and destroy any potential for future happiness.”

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Filed under Defining Gender, Health Education, Media, Mental Health, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

Tom Arnold: Stop.

I could just edit the Billy Bush post because I am addressing literally the exact same topic as I did when I pointed out Bush’s weird fascination with french maids.

Tom Arnold was on Conan last night and when Conan remarked that Tom and Arnold Schwarz were good friends, Tom’s response was: “Blah, blah blah…well, he can no longer make fun of the women I’ve slept with!” Followed by some guffaws.

Please. Please. Please. Stop referring to Mildred Baena as an unattractive woman no one would dare to look twice at, much less touch. Please stop acting shocked and appalled that in his decision to cheat, he chose this woman to do it with. Please instead focus on the real issue – that after years of crude behavior towards women, Arnold made another move that disrespected yet another one, his wife of twenty years. Why does dragging Mildred’s appearance into the picture have relevance? Isn’t this conversation not only irrelevant, but also pretty mean-spirited? I don’t think Arnold is attractive, but I’m not taking this opportunity to say “Mildred, what were you thinking jumping into bed with this over ‘roided caveman?” (Actually, it might be worth noting that one reason people wouldn’t say that is because Arnold is an incredibly powerful man, and power is often equated with attractiveness and the reason why many men in power seem to be getting in trouble with the ladies. See: every news story in the past two months.)

Arnold has an infidelity issue. It doesn’t have anything to do with how hot other people think the women he is sleeping with are. If people expected infidelity to be a result of tractor-beam hotness, wouldn’t you expect every man to be an adulterer? There are millions of beautiful women, why aren’t married and attached men jumping them right and left and using the excuse that she was just too gorgeous to leave alone? Because that isn’t what infidelity is really about. It’s about his commitment issues, his issues with the truth, and his issues with reality. That is, in thinking he can lead two lives at once.

Also, have we not evolved to the point yet where we realize that each individual has a unique definition of beauty? And that each individual is, in fact, beautiful in their own right? Oh, I just wrote a post about how we haven’t gotten there yet.

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Filed under Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Franklin & Bash: Helping To Take Women Down a Peg One Case at a Time

Franklin & Bash, a new show on TNT starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Breckin Meyer, debuted unimpressively this past week. (Past two weeks? I don’t know, the ads are everywhere, I couldn’t get away from it.) One of the first episodes replayed late last night, and in true pop media form, it was a train wreck from which I could not peel myself away.

This episode concerned a woman, Jennifer, who was suing her former company, a magazine catering to “men’s lifestyle” (some kind of take on Maxim), for firing her because she was too pretty. These two green lawyers jump on this case like white on rice, for no other reason it seems than their interest in gaining access to a woman they assume is stratospherically hot. We then watch their excitement melt into a puddle of disappointment as they meet the woman. I thought she was pleasant, pretty, engaging. She wasn’t skeletal. I would show you a picture, but, interestingly, in the photo album for this episode posted on the show’s website, there are no pictures of her! Despite being the namesake of the episode. Interesting.

Franklin and Bash meet Jennifer in the office. Their faces contort as they try to hide their obvious disgust, that this woman who considers herself beautiful and attractive – as she should, and as she is – doesn’t look like this:

Image Courtesy of GraphicShunt

“Uh, you’re suing them for firing you because you’re too…hot?” Franklin says (or maybe it was Bash? I don’t know, who cares) with disdain. Jennifer also cheerfully compliments the female lawyer at the men’s firm (who also stopped in her tracks at the sight of this woman who dared to consider herself attractive), by noting how beautiful she looks in a dress. The female lawyer continues to look dumbfounded that this woman, who does not match her inch-for-inch (not enough vertically, too many horizontally) has the guts to engage her in conversation with genuine goodwill.

They leave her standing there to find the senior partner who had gleefully passed the case on to them, and in an accusatory shout, exclaim “You knew she wasn’t pretty!”

His response?: “Depending on the light, she’s last call pretty.”

Bash’s (or Franklin’s, again, who cares) retort: “Yea, in Alaska!”

I will pause here just in case in anyone missed the blatant, sexist crudeness of that comment. She is only maybe, possibly attractive in the middle of the night, while intoxicated, in a lowly populated state. How on earth, these men wonder, can this woman possibly think she is attractive?

In their first meeting with her, they ask her this: “Have you ever modeled?”  Followed by: “Yea, and, um, gotten paid for it?”

She is only maybe, possibly attractive if other people (the very objective fashion industry) have come to this conclusion? And if they have decided her beauty is worth paying for?

They then say: “We’ll pop over to your office and take a look at the rest of the women there.” Now her attractiveness is on a relative scale compared to the other women in her office?

As they head over, one of them says: “Is she the most delusional woman in the world, or just someone with an overly inflated ego?”

Where to begin.

Because this woman did not fit into the very narrow ideal that they have deemed is attractive – the ideal that we see populated at Jennifer’s office when the two do go in fact visit (all of whom basically looked like this, and actually weren’t wearing much more clothing than the women in these pics) – rail-thin, teased hair, high-fashion, high-heeled, a bit too scantily-clad for any work environment I’ve ever been a part of – the lawyers determine that she is out of her mind for finding herself beautiful and desirable. Which is actually a totally normal, healthy self-image.

As the episode progresses, we learn that the woman in question did not take advantage of the plastic surgery which was a part of the company’s healthcare plan, and was in fact fired by her boss because she didn’t consider her to be attractive enough and was also jealous of the attention she garnered for being so friendly, intelligent, and engaging. At this point, the female lawyer in the firm begins to “like” the woman in question – she admits that confidence and self-possession are true marks of beauty. While it’s nice that she concedes this, I’m still rather bothered by the fact that it took a lawsuit and a woman she thought was a bit overweight (but who herself saw beauty), to get to that point.

And even when she does get to this point, she decides to play upon any insecurities that the female jurors may have about their own appearance by instructing Franklin that they identify with Jennifer – and if they think she can snag a man like Franklin, then they’ll believe the apparently absurd idea that she was attractive enough to be fired for her physical characteristics.

I’m sure that Franklin and Bash thought they were making some kind of social commentary and being progressive by showing that a woman who thinks she is beautiful is in fact what makes her beautiful. But there were so many landmines before the realization at the end – that a woman who has confidence, is self-possessed, generous, friendly, and engaging is in fact beautiful – occurred. Not only do we never see Zach or Travis really agree to this, but it is entirely possible to send this positive message and not precede it with 40 minutes of offensive and insulting commentary towards women. We see them ogle bikini-clad women at a party, refer to Jennifer’s one-piece that covers her shoulders and thighs as a “burqini” (a little xenophobia with your sexism?), and kiss her on the stand in a pandering ploy to convince the jury that they find her beautiful even as they continue to insult her. They allow her to think she is beautiful, but they haven’t changed their assessment of what makes a woman attractive. Will we see them jumping after a clothed confident woman instead of the women at this party in future episodes?

Photo courtesy of TNT

Unlikely. In the end, Jennifer is vindicated and her self-perceptions confirmed – but I don’t think Zach and Travis came out of this with any real re-evaluation of their definition of beauty. And the 39 minutes of insults aren’t likely to be canceled out by two minutes of “wow! Smart, confident women are sexy!”concession. Which is evidenced by Travis, who, at the end of the trial, commends the founder and head of the magazine, which itself perpetrates narrow and objectifying definitions of beauty, by saying what a big fan he is of his work. That’s like saying Steinem enlightened you through “Bunny Tales” and in the same breath remarking how much you enjoy reading Maxim on the toilet.

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…College is…a Waste of Time?

So says a 19 year-old recipient of the Thiel Fellowship. This is the $100,000 award given to 20 promising entrepreneurs (who promise to leave college to pursue their submitted business plans) by Peter Thiel, early Facebook investor and venture capitalist.

I just can’t help thinking this statement of his is incredibly short-sighted. (And not just because the proclamations I made as a 19 year-old seem trite at best and horrifyingly, shockingly off-base at worst.) And this comes on the heels of many recently published articles commenting on a report that indicated which college majors were the money-makers and which should be avoided.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a (somewhat reluctant) member of academia. I am working on my dissertation at an Ivy League university in a doctoral program that I am on track to complete ahead of schedule – I mention this because I am someone who has decided to dedicate her life to the idea of discovery, of new learning, of exploration, and someone who has learned the ins and outs of elite academic institutions and is living with both the immense frustration I sometimes feel with its system as well as the immense gratitude I feel towards an environment that values intellectual curiosity and new ways of examining old problems. This quest is sanctioned, yes. I have undertaken my greatest feat as a young adult as part of a greater organization – but this decision isn’t what I would describe as ‘safe’ or an escape from what some critics say is the real world (I’ve worked full-time in the healthcare industry and in education as well, I am no stranger to what is often deemed “real work” and I have to say that most of the time it was easier than the course of doctoral study in both stress and workload).

The idea behind academia, the purpose of the structure and bureaucracy (despite the undeniable frustration and aggravation it admittedly often causes) – is that the discoveries we make and the work we do is designed in a way to note statistical significance and impact. To give it meaning in the greater social context. Does this mean work done outside of academia is not equally worthy? Absolutely not. But what it does mean is that the research done to determine the ways we measure the success of programs and interventions, the ways we measure the impact of education plans, the way we evaluate policies and their effects on communities, the way we discover how viruses grow and divide, the way we learn about bacteria, what we know about reproduction (in my world specifically, the way we calculate the number of women who access and use reproductive health services and the way we assess their reasons for doing so) is done in large part by universities or people who are affiliated with them, done by those who have published years of work that has been systematically evaluated by tens of other experts legitimizing the findings.

College, but graduate school more importantly (which requires a college degree…), not only gave me a great group of friends and a stack of classics. I remember moments throughout both when I was conscious of my way of thinking actually changing. I remember being aware, when challenged by a professor who was at the top of her field, of my brain actually stretching, of thinking “I literally have never thought of this problem in this way before.” College, and a liberal arts education in particular, were designed to change the way we think. Alter our perspective. Challenge beliefs or assumptions we may have had for the previous two decades, whether that challenge is prompted in the classroom by a professor or in a dorm room by a fellow 19 year-old. Shift our understanding so we have greater empathy, a more sophisticated understanding of circumstance, an appreciation for nuance – all of which create individuals capable of and skilled at starting businesses, working creatively and collaboratively, changing the world. Can good bosses challenge your thinking? Yes. Is their goal behind this the same? I would argue no. I would argue that their goal is to increase the profit margin, and so the depth of that challenge is likely going to be a bit more shallow.

The goal of higher education was to create a society that was open to dialogue, that put a premium on diversity of thought and belief, that valued thinking and the thought process. This kind of training in complex thinking actually does generate innovation – but college isn’t about instant gratification, as Mr. Stephens thinks it should be.

The goal of higher education, in short, when it was established, was not fundamentally to make one wealthy. So to argue that the reason one should leave academia because it does not automatically reward one with wealth is to negate higher education’s true purpose. And in denying this, it also claims that what college does in fact champion – learning to think and analyze and ultimately independently challenge oneself for the rest of one’s life – does not foster and support innovation, which is actually a direct result of one who has been thusly challenged.

I also have to say – while I admire the 19 year-olds who have articulated business plans that a Silicon Valley entrepreneur has deemed worthy, I can’t say that I’ve met or heard of many late adolescents who have been able to shock the world into submission with their business savvy. While I suppose it’s…possible that Thiel has found the 20 young ones who would prove me wrong, I have to say that…well, I doubt it. And the reasons for this include not only what I articulated above – that college fosters the development of independent thinking, encourages one to explore their unique interests in an environment that exists to guide these burgeoning passions in the right direction, and, most importantly, fosters an appreciation for, understanding, and respect of the exploration and passions of those in their community and of their generation, regardless of aligning interests – but also that with age bring experience. College in and of itself gets better as the years go on, and as a 19 year-old, I imagine that when Dale Stephens quit, he had made it through maybe two years, but more likely one – a year likely filled with general education requirements and difficult adjustments. I would also add that these adjustments, as difficult and frustrating they may be, also aid in one’s personal development. Learning that some professors may not challenge you as much as you like, some classmates may not share your interests and may in fact drive you crazy, some courses may seem boring and rote – these are all stepping stones on the way to finding out what subject matter truly does interest you, what classmates will go on to be your lifelong intellectual matches, what professors will continue to challenge your mindset and perspective and push you towards greater self-discovery. Additionally, learning to cope with and process disappointment and setback, and increasing one’s patience, are a pretty essential part of becoming an adult. There are young, brilliant, incredibly admirable thinkers throughout history, that is not debatable. But those who are older inevitably have had more experiences that contribute to their understanding of not only business, but the world in general.

And with this last thought in mind, I can’t do much but brush aside Mr. Stephen’s comments. Perhaps he’ll understand when he’s older.

Additionally, as someone who is constantly scouring the landscapes for gender discrepancies and disparities, I would note that only two of the Thiel fellows are women. That is some staggeringly poor representation, Mr. Thiel.

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Women Against Women

A new poll out of London, and reported by Daily Mail, says that women take about 20 seconds to size up other women. For the majority of them, the first thing they notice is the other’s weight. Women judging other women is nothing new, but the issues it brings up bear repeating.

54% of the women polled said they were trying to ascertain waist size above all else, and 45% said they zoomed in on the face to see if the other was wearing too much make-up. The list of judgments continues, with dress sense, hair, skin spots, roots, skin tone/tan, breast size, how tall they are, jewelry, and – given the rest of this list, it’s not surprising – the man they’re with.

Wow. We’re harsh. This poll underscores the serious insecurities other women feel for no other reason than assuming other women are their competition instead of their friends and comrades. Certain things on this list – weight, skin tone and color, height, breast size – are physical characteristics that are either unchangeable or difficult and expensive to alter, which would make the viewer feel either innately superior or innately inferior to the woman at whom they are gazing. These are of course false senses of superiority and inferiority, based solely on the expectations that women feel their innate characteristics are supposed to meet, and the root of so much body dysmorphia and self-loathing – fueling of course the rampant eating disorders among women that are real public health and mental health issues. These feelings can present on both ends of the spectrum – it can serve to promote assessments of low self-worth and the idea that one is inherently not as valuable as someone who has a smaller waist size, is taller, has bigger breasts, etc. But it can also serve to reinforce in the women who do have smaller waists, are taller, have bigger breasts, etc., that they are in fact more worthy than the women who don’t match up with their physical characteristics. This fuels divisions between women and within women. “If I lose the weight, I will be more valuable” contrasted with “If I gain weight, I lose my value and status above women who are bigger than me.”

The other things on the list – roots, jewelry, dress – are indications of class judgment as well. And the danger here is of course that women equate worth with wealth.

The noticing of the man the woman is with is no coincidence, and is I think the real drive behind these judgments. By sizing up the woman, one can assess her inherent worth based on physical presentation, and by sizing up the man she is with, one can assess what kind of man is attracted to and snagged by a woman of that physical presentation. It’s all about snagging the best dude, and you are in direct competition with other women for the best dude! By comparing themselves to the woman, and rating one’s own self against the image of that woman, one is able to determine where they fall on the scale of attractiveness for men, and for that particular man. Are you more attractive and wealthier than this man’s girlfriend. You win! Are you less attractive? You lose. :( Better get back to work.

So if you see a rich and thin woman with a pretty hot dude, you feel both envy and self-loathing. If you’re richer and thinner and have a hotter dude with you, your judgment serves your assumption that you are better and also serves to remind you that your position as ‘better’ is precarious and relies on your ability to maintain the thinness, wealth, and hotness factor of your dude. Doesn’t everyone seem unhappy in these scenarios?

Let’s try to take it easy on one another.

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Mitch Albom Seems Pretty Angry about a Gender Undefined Baby.

Mitch Albom, best known for writing somewhat simple, somewhat trite memoirs about accepting the circle of life and simplifying death – but works that many people, nonetheless, and to their right, have found moving and helpful – is really pissed off. The author and columnist for the Detroit Free Press is angry that some strangers in Canada, some people he doesn’t even know, won’t tell him the sex of their baby.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It is. A Canadian family has decided to raise their newborn baby Storm without the socialized gender prescriptions that are based on reproductive organs. Sounds fine to me. And the story should basically end there. Albom’s first flippant comment says that the response these parents have to people who inquire about their baby’s gender is: “Whatever.” Which actually isn’t true. Their responses have been pretty consistent, and they aren’t “whatever,” they’re actually thoughtful and articulate replies, that in short say, we aren’t disclosing the sex of the baby because we want him/her to come into their identity without the social pressures that dictate his/her behavior based on, as Albom eloquently puts it, “what is in their diaper.” They don’t want other people or society at large to tell their newborn how they should present themselves, how they should feel about themselves, how they should self-identify, based on genitalia. Seriously, it sounds about as far from child abuse as one can get, but Albom launches into a really bizarre sort of tirade about it:

“Calling a boy a boy is not making a choice for your child. But calling a boy genderless is. I wonder what other choices these folks will leave to the baby. For example, why not let it decide to change its own diaper? Why impose your view? Maybe the kid likes sitting in poo-poo — who are we to judge? Why decide when to do a feeding? Put the bottle on the counter and let the kid go after it. Schooling? The child can decide. Go. Don’t go. Whatever. What’s important, after all, is that parents aren’t “obnoxious” about it. What you have here is a classic case of people saying one thing and causing the opposite. By trying to ignore gender, they have made gender the most important thing. There are now online polls as to whether Storm is a boy or a girl (most say boy), and TV shows and talk shows nationwide have been buzzing with it. Meanwhile, Storm’s two older brothers — Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2 — are being raised without formal schooling and taught to choose whatever behavior they like. Jazz, according to the Star, dresses in pink, paints his nails and wears a stud in his ear. This, we are to believe, is his “choice.” Of course, Mom or Dad made the choice to buy the nail polish, the clothes and the stud. What happens if the child points to a chain saw? They get him that, too?”

The parents have not made gender the most important thing. The media, including Albom, have made it the most important thing. The parents said they weren’t going to define the gender for their kid, and left it at that – then the media maelstrom jumped in and decided to tell them what they thought was wrong with this plan, and to insist upon an answer. It’s not them making it a big deal, Albom, it’s you. He makes home-schooling sound like they’re burying their children alive. Home-schooling can be as equally effective as traditional schooling, particularly if parents are conscientious and involved, as these parents seem to be. He sees a five year-old boy wearing pink, nail polish, and an earring as not only not normal and not ok, but indicative of behavior that is so out of the realm of normalcy that it’s likely to result in chainsaw purchases. When did parents who let their little boys where nail polish and the color pink become equated with accomplices to a child’s destruction with a power tool? It seems to me that parents with this much of an open mind show a real love and affection for individuality and would do a pretty solid job raising children who had that same respect for others – and also probably would do a good job of explaining why a chainsaw would be an inappropriate toy for kids. (Maybe Albom should be going after the parents whose kids have armies of weaponry for toys and are far more likely to request a purchase like that.)

These parents are actually making difficult choices, difficult because they fly in the face of what others claim to be the right choices for all children and families. Not defining their children by gender is in fact making one of these very difficult choices, letting them come into their own identity shows an immense amount of trust, which many children don’t get enough of and then resent (I don’t know if Jazz and Storm will experience the same kine of teenage rebellion as those who behaviors are scripted for years and who one day realize that this is not at all how they see themselves). Then he goes back to what he sees as a personal assault on his understanding of gender identity:

“What I don’t get is the motivation. The parents, in their late 30s, seem to feel a terrible injustice is done by identifying something that goes back to Adam and Eve, namely, well, whether you’re an Adam or an Eve.”

Ok, Albom, I gotta tell you – you don’t need to understand the motivation behind what these parents are doing. This may come as a shock, but a couple in Canada were not thinking of you when they named their baby or when they decided to raise it without imposing limiting, gendered, prescribed behaviors and styles upon it. It’s just…not about you. But his frustration, and his weird off the rails likening of their decision to giving the baby a chainsaw or letting it live in its own filth is not only insulting, but indicative of how threatening this decision is to people. If a child is raised without any instruction of how they should behave based on their sex, the entire socialized world is turned upside down. The critics’ idea of woman/man, feminine/masculine, might get turned out – then they might start questioning it themselves! “Have I been acting too feminine?” “Do I really identify more with masculinity charged behaviors, but am a female and am used to being told that’s wrong?” In fact, the prospect of having to re-evaluate what they thinks makes a person a man or woman is terrifying in part becuase it may reveal some deficiencies in their previous appraisals of people or of themselves.

Also, now he’s making it a religious issue. Adam and Eve are Biblical characters (also, maybe I should add here that Eve is blamed for man’s downfall by seducing Adam – that’s just a whole different post) ostensibly designed in God’s image. So is Albom saying that God dictated this child’s gender and we must accept it and act accordingly? It’s an injustice to ignore what Albom thinks is God’s doctrine on this little baby’s gender identity? Now they’re also defying God?

In his seminal work, Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom writes: “Accept who you are, and revel in it.” (More of his…somewhat cheesy quotes can be found here.) Why won’t he let Storm figure out who he/she is on his/her own, and then revel in it? Storm looks happy in these pictures. Seems like Storm will be just fine figuring out who he/she is without Mitch Albom telling him/her. They aren’t sending their children to traditional school! They aren’t calling their baby a “he” or “she”! They let the little boy wear pink nail polish! Call the cops! Sheesh. Calm down, Mitch. These will likely turn out to be some pretty sensitive and thoughtful and inclusive kids.

Here’s the thing – I had no beef with Albom before this. None of his books ever really spoke to me, but as I said above, to many people they were comforting. But for someone who writes pieces that I think tend to play sentimentally towards people’s vulnerabilities and somewhat oversimplifies issues that for many, many families are extraordinarily complex (aging and dying parents, loyalty, understanding of one’s own mortality), I have to say I was surprised that he was so pissed off and had such mounting dislike towards a gender unspecified baby and five year-old boy in nail polish. He writes what amount to adult fairytales (true conflict is missing from his work, the resolve of which is the mark of great writing), which to me signifies his attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Morrie Schwartz, Albom’s mentor and idol, said this: “Well, for one thing, the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it.”

It seems that in this case, Albom is part of that culture making people feel bad. These parents are teaching the right thing – that the person is what matters, not the sex, and that the person should be valued, not how well they perform as a female or a male. These parents are creating their own culture, they aren’t buying Albom’s. I wish he’d take the sage advice of the man who made him famous in the first place.

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Asking For It.

In New York this past weekend, it was reported that an 85 year-old woman was sexually assaulted on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the early morning hours. In light of my most recent post, I’m linking to the article because it underscores the real issues behind rape and assault.

As we first fleshed out in my post about Ed Schultz and the NYPD officer case – and the reason I’m highlighting this most recent disturbing news story – when reading these news stories that provide brief glimpses into cases without always articulating the underlying issues, rape and assault are about power and control. This isn’t a remarkable revelation for many, but given the cacophony of noise provided by detractors of rape allegations that claim that women are asking for it when they get raped and that men can’t control their sexual urges if encouraged or aroused by a woman. (It’s worth pointing out that this insulting to the men as well as the women – the obvious slam that any woman would “ask for” the trauma, ceaseless anxiety, degradation, pain of assault or rape, and that men apparently have no control over his sexual urges.)

In this most recent New York case, this assaulter – a young man as seen on a surveillance camera – would be hard pressed to articulate how this 85 year-old woman out for her morning walk was being sexually inviting. He saw her as something to be easily manipulated, someone he could easily take advantage of and overpower, and someone he could control. Someone he could easily get to do what he wanted. Sex and the desire to be sexually intimate with someone are expressions of attraction and love. When someone forces someone to complete a sex act, the focus is the force – not the attraction or expression of feeling. The supposed desire lies in the feeling of control one has over another – and that control is itself the attraction for attackers, wanting to be indisputably in the power position in this dyad.

The fact that his victim was 85 years-old is beside the point. It carries its own spectacular horror, but even if his victim had instead been 25 years-old and known to him, the dynamic remains the same.

In intimate relationships – date rape and partner rape, assault that occurs between people who know one another and between people who may have had some kind of physical relationship in the past – the issue of power is still the root of the attack. Someone who consistently pressures and coerces the victim, who presumes they were led on, who continues to push forward despite lack of consent, is no longer focused on the act of sex – they are focused on the desire to now overpower the person who they feel owes them this experience, who they feel should be serving their needs. The anger that occurs in the space between what the assaulter thought was going to happen – what they all of a sudden feel is their due – and in what the other person wants to willingly participate is where the assault lies. In blind rapes, or stranger rapes, the act of the assault could be driven by instances completely removed the individual who is attacked, and they are merely the object on which the aggression is expressed. The victim of the attack is dehumanized in the eyes of the assaulter, an essential element of the rape and a marker of the mind of the assaulter.

Relatedly – and importantly indicative of this power dynamic in sexual assault and rape – since the alleged attack on a Sofitel Hotel maid by DSK, other instances of maids and housekeeping staff being sexually  assaulted by guests at some of Manhattan’s premiere hotels have come to light – at the Pierre, an Egyptian banking executive assaulted a maid who brought something to his to his room (he was arraigned last night). These women are service workers who lack the political, social, and financial power that these men command, and they are in positions that cannot individually speak to power without feeling consequence. If these men were after sex, they could have gotten sex – an engaged, willing partner – in a city as big and diverse as New York. But it’s easier to use a woman who may feel trapped by her job duties, who is at the bottom of a management ladder, one who assaulters feel is less likely to report an attack for fear that they would not be believed or for fear of losing their employment – in short, easily manipulated and taken advantage of. They wanted a service performed for them, and so they called upon someone they saw as a servant. It’s the idea that what they wanted that instant could be provided by someone who they didn’t see as a person – again, the dehumanization – but as someone there to execute a duty. It probably never crossed the minds of these assaulters that they were not entitled to take what they wanted when they wanted it, and this is what is at the root of these assaults.

While the stories of hotel staff being taken advantage of and the story of an 85 year-old woman being dragged down a Manhattan street differ in circumstance and setting, the motivations behind each attack and their results are the same. And until these rapes and sexual assaults are examined through this dramatically different lens as opposed to current environment of blaming the victim, we will not be able to appropriately victims in their pursuit of both judicial justice and personal healing.

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