Tag Archives: pop culture

Think Domestic Violence is Funny?

A whole slew of people who aren’t afraid to admit that they think domestic violence is a total joke made it clear last night when the Twitterverse erupted during Chris Brown’s performance. Other writers have well articulated the reasons why I was upset to see him perform, much less have him so vocally supported – a standing ovation? Really?  Frankly, I was surprised that there was restraint in showing Rihanna’s reaction to his numbers.

Despite the outpouring of affection for this man, I was still shocked to see the responses of women watching around the country. Trigger warning for abuse – here are some responses to his performance via Twitter:

“I’d let Chris Brown beat me up anytime ;) #womanbeater”

“Like I’ve said multiple times before, Chris Brown can beat me all he wants…I’d do anything to have him oh my”

“chris brown can beat me all he wants, he is flawless”

“Chris brown.. please beat me ;).”

“I’d let chris brown beat me any day ;).”

“I’d let chris brown punch me in the face”

“I don’t know why Rihanna complained. Chris Brown could beat me up anytime he wanted to.”

What do we gather from these tweets? (Full list here, again, trigger warning.) These go beyond the lack-of-filter in-the-moment tweets that often get people in trouble because they show that these people have a clear understanding of his actions – no one here is pleading ignorance to his abusive history or denouncing it while commenting on his performance. They are doing just the opposite, celebrating and glorifying his violence. Taking it further, they sexualize it as they coyingly ask him – instruct him – to beat them whenever he wants as an acceptable, warranted, and defensible act for being lucky enough to be his partner. The winky smiley faces, the promotion of his supposed flawlessness, the admission that they would suffer innumerable beatings just to be with him, capped off with the dismissal of Rihanna’s rightful decision to report him as a mere “complaint” – we have a major problem here. Combined with a collective short-term memory problem (all those rallying screams at the Grammy’s last night), these messages serve to tell domestic violence victims that they are overreacting, that they should not “complain” if their assailant is considered talented and desired by so many women, that abuse is entirely excusable when perpetrated by a superstar with mass appeal, and very disturbingly, that violence is, of all things, so so sexy (“i wish chris brown would punch me!” begged one tweet). The claim that they would “let” a man punch them in the face does nothing but support the dangerous stereotype that women want to be beaten, that it turns them on.

What a way to let Chris Brown forget about what he’s done. Not only does he get to say that he supposedly regrets his actions, but if he ever felt a creeping of guilt or was actually on some path to understanding what he’s done and why it’s so disturbing and utterly unacceptable – you know, the tough mental work that is required to be rehabilitated – all he’d need to do is head over to Twitter and type his own name into a search. He’d be greeted by plenty of women and men not only excusing his actions, but praising them, supporting them, begging him to repeat them. We’ve got a really long way to go, here.

Update: Charmingly, Chris Brown responded to his critics on his on Twitter page, before it seems his handlers thought it best he stay silent on the issue.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Violence, Violence Against Women

99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

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Filed under Defining Gender, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Pop Culture

Candace Bushnell: A Word.

A few months ago, I was hitting stride on a treadmill when I heard those pumped up intro beats, knowing what came next was “Camera One…Stand by Billy, Camera Two…Stand by, Kit.” Access Hollywood, providing me with a constant stream of fodder, was starting. Kit would be interviewing Candace Bushnell, well known as, obviously, the writer of Sex and the City. I had forgotten about this interview, which took place in April, until I heard a phrase yesterday that mimicked something Bushnell said on the show. In this interview, while describing her beloved characters, she said that Miranda “was, you know, this feminist, and had decided that she hated men…”

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Ok. Hold the phone. This woman created a global business empire based on the story of four women who, despite ostensibly having careers that allowed them to maintain very comfortable lives in the most expensive city in the U.S., seemed to spend precious little time doing things other than obsessing over the men, or potential men, in their lives. Should we give her props for her business acumen? I’m not sure, because I’m less certain it has to do with her business savvy as much as it has to do with capitalizing on women’s socialized insecurities by creating characters who are constantly in the pursuit of the elusive perfect partner, and riddled with anxiety about whether or not they’ll find him.

But this post isn’t about Sex and the City – it’s about what feminism actually means. Perhaps Bushnell misspoke; regardless, the idea that feminism means hating the XYs is still out there.

So, I feel an obligation here to clear some things up. Feminism does not mean hating men. Feminism advocates the equal opportunity, accessibility, treatment of and rights of men and women. Equal access to quality education. Equal pay for the same jobs, equal access to mentors of both sexes. The same consideration for jobs without being discounted out of fear that they may be too ‘emotional’ or because they may one day have children. Health care and insurance that doesn’t consider being a woman in and of itself to be a pre-existing condition. The respect and assurance that women who decide they cannot carry a baby to term have legitimate reasons for making this decision and did not come to the conclusion lightly. It’s about being judged for your competency and skill set and not for the size of your breasts or the size of your waist or the symmetry of your face. It’s about understanding the importance of positively brilliant, incisive female leaders to inspire young girls the same way brilliant, incisive male leaders inspire young boys – and how each gender can inspire and educate children of opposite genders, and that it is important to do so.

Most importantly, feminism is about eliminating gender stereotypes for both men and women – ensuring that both sexes are not limited by archaic expectations to which their biology previously would have held them predisposed, and encouraging the individuality that flourished regardless of their reproductive organs. It was about not assigning specific behaviors to people based on these organs, and instead proclaiming that while differences in that regard allow us to procreate, they are not responsible for determining or limiting our capabilities. That’s what feminism has always been, first, second, or third wave; despite many attempts that have been made to brand it otherwise. Not all feminists are women – plenty of men are, too. Breaking down the gender stereotypes that have penned in both sexes for decades is important for everyone. The historical patriarchy created a supposed male ideal that was painfully constricting and costly for men as well, forcing them into binding roles of hyper-masculinity that emphasized sexual, financial, political, and social power positions – roles that shouldn’t be monopolized by a gender for moral and practical reasons. I can be a feminist and have what are deemed “feminine” characteristics. But as a feminist, I also think that a man can have “feminine” characteristics. I can also be a feminist and have “masculine” characteristics. What’s important is that characteristics don’t need to be coded as exclusively feminine or exclusively masculine, that they don’t need to dictate people to act accordingly, and that the characteristics or behaviors don’t exist for the purpose of ostensibly “improving” one’s natural self. It’s about not defining oneself in relation to another, but in relation to oneself. Not about figuring out how you should present yourself to a potential partner based on their ideals, but about teaching everyone the importance  of breaking down ideals that were constructed based on assumptions of what each sex should represent. The point of feminism was to point out that objectification negated the true personhood of women, reduced them to commodities of pleasure while not acknowledging and celebrating their self, identity, what made them an individual, what made them unique, what them capable and brilliant. And that equality didn’t mean reducing men to that objectification as well or instead, but rather meant raising the bar of expectation and respect for women. Not hating men. Feminism is for everyone!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Don’t Pull Me Into Your Crazy

I occasionally (absurdly) wonder if I will run out of things to write about on this blog. And then, I walk out my front door and New York City is able to assuage those concerns by presenting me with something like this:

Courtesy of NBC

Oh, Whitney Cummings. Your brand of comedy has never really been my style (to each her own), but don’t try to drag me into your twisted, coded, gendered division of communication styling.

Many women I know are ninjas in the sense that they juggle multiple responsibilities at work and home – many men as well – successfully and admirably. But by claiming that half the population lacks the communication and conversation skills to express their anger and frustration and instead chooses to plaintively claim calmness while plotting a violent attack against their partner as opposed to saying “actually, I’m not fine, we need to chat about something,” really seems to hammer home that stereotype of women being unpredictable shrill harpies who have no control over their emotions. I smell a setup.

I know this is an ad for her comedy show, but I actually don’t think she’s joking and that’s why I’m a bit troubled. First off, I’m not someone who thinks that just because a woman tells a sexist joke it automatically isn’t actually sexist. I see women who promote negative associations of women, even in what is presented as a comic format, more as trying to utilize and manipulate a standard-fare misogynistic framework – one that’s already firmly in place and is pretty hard to change thanks to years of socialization – for their benefit. Slamming their gender seems like a crass way to get ahead. Not to mention it’s totally unwarranted. Why not challenge these claims with humor instead?

Making jokes about women’s supposedly untameable roller-coaster emotional lives is nothing new – comedians have been doing it for years. But what’s interesting to look at is how these jokes are then translated into real criticism of women – particularly ambitious women. Look at Hillary Clinton. Throughout the course of her campaign for Presidency, she was lambasted constantly for being “too emotional” or not emotional enough, supposedly indicating an inability to not be swayed by a hormonal response or showing a disconnect from the people. These claims were used to call into question her ability to lead the country. These irrelevant and sexist charged assessments and provocations, remarkably, took center stage of her coverage and entirely overlooked her phenomenal qualifications and understanding of both domestic and foreign policy. Even after being appointed to a position of such eminence as Secretary of State, some critics just can’t stop. The photo of the Cabinet in the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound was seen as another snapshot of Clinton supposedly having an emotional reaction to a situation that the men ostensibly handled “stoically.”

I’m inclined, because of this, to not so much see the ‘Whitney’ ads as funny or new but as pulling out some tired insults used against women and packaging them as funny and new because a woman herself is making the jab. Whitney’s presentation as one of the gang, going in on the old-boy jokes, actually makes it seem as though these old stereotypes are nothing, that they don’t really mean anything, that women agree we’re so hard to get along with, and unpredictable, and might burst into tears or bite your head off at any given moment! When in fact we know that isn’t the case, and that these adjectives and descriptions have and can cause women to be seen as inferior, less capable, and unable to manage. Reiterating them in a comedic setup doesn’t actually challenge but reinforces them. Perhaps her show will be different than what the ad suggests, only time will tell. I’m sure good comedians can find other things to joke about than women’s emotional lives.


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

Sexist and Sexualized Advertising: On the Rise

A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.

This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.

That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.

In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.

In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls;  secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”

My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.

Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?

Wanna answer that question on Twitter? Follow me here!

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

A Bunny’s Return

“The Playboy Club,” a show debuting on NBC’s fall lineup has had its fair share of publicity. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the show for moral reasons, Troy Patterson’s thinly veiled assault on Maureen Dowd’s coverage of the show, in which he quotes Amber Heard – the show’s leading Bunny – as saying “what’s wrong with being sexy? Why is that subservient?” Even NPR covered the show’s bizarre claim that it was empowering for women because, as Hefner says, “a bunny could be anything they wanted;” an odd claim since the identity of a bunny was scripted with a hard line and came with a hefty set of rules and guidelines.

One of those rules that Gloria Steinem revealed in her great expose “A Bunny’s Tale” about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, was STI examinations and a physical. This logically leads one to the assumption that the bunnies were expected, encouraged, or even forced to engage in sexual relationships with the clients under the identity of Bunny – why else require a waitress to get an STI test? This is where my first retort to Ms. Heard’s bafflingly short-sighted comment comes into play. The Bunnies have to get tested so they don’t infect the men – what about the men infecting the Bunnies? Were they swabbed upon entrance to the club to ensure that they weren’t putting the waitresses at risk? It seems they were excused because they were funneling money into the pockets of Hefner, and this is a perfect example of why Ms. Heard is serving above all else. Catering to the whims of the customers with the most money without protection or regard for the workers doesn’t make it seem like those workers are so empowered after all. Seems more like they’re at risk.

Ms. Steinem had a great response to the show, in which she said: “It normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” She has hopes that it will be boycotted, and I fully share in Ms. Steinem’s vision of what the show projects. Normalization of unhealthy behaviors and images is a primary topic of my blog. Despite it taking place 50 years ago, witnessing the power dynamic between the bunnies and the customers reinforces how damaging those scripted gender roles truly are – and for viewers who still think those gender roles should remain as scripted, this show and the participants’ comments that it’s all just fun and games helps to serve their ideal. Why would we want to bring back – even as a source of entertainment – the vision of a reality that restrained women from being seen in their workplace as anything more than a decoration? Beyond that, this show isn’t even an attempt at parody, it’s an attempt to glorify this world that Ms. Steinem points out resulted in “women…[telling] me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”

There are also serious flaws with the idea that these roles were empowering for the women simply because the men were told “not to touch” the bunnies. This creates the false notion that the best way for a woman to maintain a position of power is to withhold sex. The bunnies could have had this “power” which was limited to withholding sexual pleasure while in a sexual pleasure palace taken away from them easily, through direct assault or coerced sexual relationships that they felt they needed to engage in given their role as servers. Withholding something is not in and of itself an act of positive power but one of passivity masquerading as control – which can easily yield to the money these customers had. An act of positive power would be intellect, a skill set, developed talent, cultivated life experiences leading to the fully fleshed out self not entirely composed of a sexuality and not reliant on the financing – whether in tips or in marriage – of men. True power exists when the reliance on others or threat of others ceases to exist. This isn’t to say that sexuality isn’t a part of an identity, I most certainly think it is. However, the bunnies – infantilized, presented as reward, reduced to the image of a cuddly baby rabbit – are not actually presented (in this show, and in Ms. Steinem’s brilliant ‘A Bunny’s Tale’) as women who have a deep understanding of their sexuality and identity. The power in sexuality lies in one’s ability to articulate what their sexual needs and wants are, to respect those of others, and to communicate with partners. That is what prevents one partner from feeling or being subservient to the other – something The Playboy Club doesn’t seem to promote.

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

“Top Girl” Doesn’t Actually Help Girls Get Anywhere

I’m always on the lookout for games, books, toys, and stories that an aid in the education, emboldening, social-awareness, and positive development of children and young adults. And as someone who usually finds it impossible to not look at things through a gendered lens, I am frequently concerned with the discrepancy between what I see actually advertised to young girls and boys and what I think is actually appropriate for young girls and boys.

A new game has just been released by CrowdStar, called “Top Girl.” This is how TechCrunch described the game:

“Top Girl is a mobile role-playing game that allows players to create a fashionable avatar and then climb up the fashion social ladder, collecting money by doing modeling jobs, buying new outfits, and going to clubs.

The core gameplay is around the modeling job, where as you work more, you earn coins and cash and are able to buy better clothes.”

Here’s the advert image:

Photo via TechCrunch

I mean, I started cringing before I even finished reading the first sentence. We just recently discussed how the repitition of images and gaming constructs can impact the development of children and their self-perceptions, and we are now confronted with another representation of not only a strict, but a damaging gender role  being touted as “female-focused.”

Why does “female-focused” mean fashion and social-climbing to these developers? Why is clubbing, the latest trends, social hierarchy, and physical appearance being touted as what it means to be definitively female even in virtual worlds? It isn’t enough that mere media imagery feeds girls the idea of a limited definition of beauty and implies that others’ perceptions of them will be based on how closely they align with this definition? We have to take it further, with the “female-focused” game we offer them telling them that the best way to get attention (and affection) is by booking modeling gigs that can push you into what they present as the only relevant social world – one of wealth and fame – which will give you money to buy the hottest outfits, which will also allow you entry into the latest clubs, where hopefully your latest fashions will be admired by all, garnering you more modeling gigs, which will make you more money, pushing you up even higher on the social ladder until you reach the pinnacle of success?

Money is what matters in this virtual world, and the best way to get it is not through intellectual prowess, dedication to a sport, writing a book, finding a cure, coming up with an innovative tech idea. It’s through pictures of your face and body. The girls aren’t engaging in the creative process of designing clothing, which would make the game more innovative and actually push these girls to have a unique style of their own – what if they did this instead? Bought virtual fabrics and textiles, and created a design empire? Because otherwise, I’m not sure I want to know what the “winner” of this social game looks like, do you?

Perhaps the silver lining is that this game might teach girls about managing money and understand a budget. You think? And how about you follow me on Twitter so you can see what else I’m dishing.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture

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 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.


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

Turns Out, Rape Isn’t Funny. Surprise!

Feministing posted about the opening skit of SNL’s season finale yesterday, and thank god they did because when I saw this sketch on Saturday I sat there thinking “I can’t be the only person who thinks this is totally not amusing.”

But yes, I feel like it needs to be pointed out that rape isn’t funny no matter who is getting raped or doing the raping. Joking about prison rape really negates the very real trauma people who are raped in prison experience and feel the repercussions of for the rest of their lives – like all rape victims. It delegitimizes the fight against sexual assault. When people rightfully denounce the deplorable actions of DSK and then turn around and joke about how hilarious it is to think about him being raped in prison, you lose the validity of your argument. You lose your audience who then go on to think that since it was so easy to mock the attack of someone else – however villainous he may in fact be –  it’s actually not a huge deal, and hey, if you change your perspective, it can be kind of funny. It’s not hilarious when a sex worker is raped, it’s not hilarious when a girl someone thinks is wearing “slutty” (whatever the definition of that now is) clothes is raped, it’s not hilarious when an attacker is then raped him or herself. That kind of eye for an eye retribution should be long out of style. Let’s try to truncate the cycle of hate, not add to it even by jokingly assuming that it would be funny for an assaulter to know what it feels like.

I once saw a comedian who made a rape joke and was rightfully (but very mildly) booed by part of the audience. After her performance, someone tentatively brought up the fact that she had made light of a very serious, very traumatic issue. I myself had been concerned about the possibility of rape victims being in her audience, who may have relived the trauma and felt fear, anxiety, anger, and confusion rise in their gut as they recalled an assault they may have experienced, while the comedian on the stage just laughed it off. The comedian’s response was that she felt “everything should be able to be joked about,” that everything can be funny. Well, I obviously disagree; in that response there seems to be a lack of awareness, a lack of respect, a lack of empathy. I don’t think rape jokes are funny, because I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t take their experience seriously, and I don’t want them to think at all that any part of their attack could be seen as worthy of a snicker. I don’t think AIDS jokes are funny because most of the people I have worked with as an HIV/AIDS educator don’t find their painful condition very funny, nor the circumstances (cost of medication, treatment options, co-morbidities, shortened life span, loss of friends and family) very funny. If you’re a good comedian, a good writer, a good actor – you must be able to come up with material that doesn’t cover the grounds of assault, no?

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Filed under Health Education, Media, Public Health, Rape and Sexual Assault, Violence

Beyonce: A Word.

Last night, Beyonce apparently put on quite the show at the Billboard Awards. This is not an awards show I watch (or remember exists), but it’s gotten so much attention that I checked it out.

I’ve never been a big Beyonce fan or a big Beyonce hater – I’ve always thought she had a solid voice and I liked that she wasn’t dropping lbs. in a rate directly correlated to her rise to fame. I have a couple songs, no albums; have taken cursory glances at her interviews, but was never really drawn in.

However. A few things popped into my mind this time around. The first and most obvious was, of course, that girls don’t run the world. By any stretch of the imagination, [especially] not here. This part has been dissected by bloggers and vloggers since her performance, so I just wanted to reiterate that point.

But this wildly off-base claim also made me think of two things near and dear to Beyonce’s heart. Her clothing line and her husband.

Remember when the ads for her company’s line of kids clothing came out, and there was an appropriate uproar? Let’s tackle this one first. This is not how girls should dress:

Photo courtesy of Dereon

Those are not natural little girl poses. Look at the stiffness of the stance of the one in the red, glittered heels. Frankly, she also looks a bit confused. To me, this kind of pedophilic sexualization, promotion and presentation of small young girls, encouraging them to be seen as someone ready for a life and experiences a decade before they are developmentally capable of understanding what those experiences mean, is scary and very risky. Here is how I see them in ten years:

Courtesy of Celebrity Pics Blogspot

Or, if not yet pregnant:

Photo copyright WireImage, via Daily Mail UK

If I am not mistaken, she is not running the world. If I recall correctly, she’s had a few public breakdowns and made more than a few startlingly poor life decisions. Which I feel pretty sure had something to do with how she raised and managed. And she wasn’t even dressing like Beyonce’s kiddies (though she as encouraging dudes to hit her one more time, which may have had something to do with her outcome), this is how she looked at 16:

Photo courtesy of Jive Records

Here is a picture of someone I see as actually ruling the world:

Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Aaand, here’s another:

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Government

I could be wrong. But I don’t think they were doing or wearing the same things when they were 8 years old as Britney and the toddlers-in-tiaras in training in the Dereon ad. They were probably doing things that got them into and prepared them for Wellesley, Princeton, and Yale. That then prepared them for the careers that launched these two superstars into actually ruling the world. A different path than girls who…I don’t know, rule the catwalk?

Now we can address Jay-Z. This will be quick. But, for as much as she loves herself some Jay-Z, I feel pressed to ask Beyonce how these girls can rule the world if her hubby keeps dismissing them as bitches, as problems to be “dealt with,” even if he does concede that they aren’t one of his 99. Just to make sure that’s hammered home, you are really into girls running the world, but your husband thinks they’re bitches, sees “2 Many Hos” as a real hindrance to his big pimpin’ lifestyle, instead of seeing, as exemplified above, seriously brilliant folks who have a shitload of skills to offer and should be looked at as partners in progress. But Jay-Z is more on this side: “Catch me in the parkin’ lot / Hollerin’ at bitches, parkin’ lot pimpin’.” (As an aside, pimping them out is also not the best way to prep girls for ruling the world.)

Also, while I don’t think lying about the current state of girls and women’s leadership is the way to change the status quo, I also don’t think championing one gender’s supremacy over the other as the ideal power dynamic is good – whether it’s all men or all women. Let’s shoot for striking a nice balance. Maybe have the rally cry of “Who Run the World – A Group of About 50% Women, 50% Men, Who Support Nationalized Healthcare and Public Education and the Funding of Social Programs That Benefit Even Those Who Don’t Run the World.”

Too political for pop, I know. But let’s try to avoid the “if we say it, it’s true” and “sex is power” and “girls are bitches and problems to be dealt with” roads as well.


Filed under Defining Gender, Pop Culture