Tag Archives: gender identity

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

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

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.”


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

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