Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Attn: Rapists Are Not Movie Villians

This post by karnythia on The Angry Black Woman blog tells people what they should already know, but often don't: That rapists are "good" guys. Rapists are often the guys who hold the door open for the elderly, have sisters they love dearly and generally represent the honorable American male. Unfortunately people continue to hold on to the idea that rapists are hiding behind bushes. Rapists are men who twirl the ends of their mustaches and smile menacingly.

This post confirms that they are not usually those men:

"That Time I Talked To A Rapist And He Was Such A Nice Guy"

People who know me well will tell you that I need a keeper. It’s partly my own refusal to stop adding things to my plate (guess who has 2 thumbs & 20 projects), & partly the invisible sign over my head that invites people to tell me things. Complete strangers have told me stories about abortions they regret, relationships they need to end, and on one memorable occasion a very nice old lady told me a story about the time she tried to poison her husband. So I’m used to the things that happen around me. Mostly. Today I met a guy who was clean cut, with a nice smile, super friendly & very much a gentleman in terms of door opening and stepping aside to let me board first.
The first few minutes of our conversation while we were waiting for the bus were the kind of pleasant chit chat you get when people establish that they have military service in common. Some ribbing about our respective branches, a little chatter about the weather, you know just the basics. Then we got on the bus, he sat next to me (I really have to stop using window seats), and kept on talking. He mentioned that his discharge was other than honorable, and when I guessed that it was for fighting he started to nod along, then he shook his head. I think I asked him what it was for, or at least alluded to being curious and he got really quiet.
Now let me say that at no point in this conversation did I feel threatened. He led with smiles and handshakes, he was polite, never once invaded my space, and in fact didn’t even give me a bad feeling. So when he started talking about the party he went to and how embarrassed he was about why he got out I was expecting something like infidelity. Or participating in a really stupid prank while he was in uniform, and winding up on Facebook or in the paper. It turns out he went to a party at a college kid’s apartment. There was a drunk underage girl, and he “let himself” be talked into spending time in a room with her. And two other dudes.
He didn’t go into great detail, but someone caught them during the act. There was screaming, some non military dudes who were happy to restrain them, and the cops were called in fairly short order. He plead guilty in order to avoid a full fledged court martial, and did a brief stint in jail before being released back into the world. He told me all about his remorse, his guilt, and his sisters who don’t know what he did. He’s let everyone who knows him believe he was just drunk and passed out in the room before the assault. But for whatever reason he really wanted to tell someone the truth.
There was a minimal glimmer of understanding that he was making me uncomfortable, but mostly his focus seemed to be on purging his pain. So, 20 minutes of not quite blubbering (his eyes were damp, he wasn’t smiling, didn’t seem to be enjoying the recounting, & his face was flushed but there were no actual tears), and then once we got to the right stop (we got off at the same place, but were headed to two different places) he jumped up to help a couple of elderly people off the bus & generally acted like a gentleman. Again.It was actually really jarring.
Once we were outside he thanked me for listening, invited me to friend him on Facebook (that would be a no), shook my hand again and went on his way. I went to the grocery store, sent a couple of tweets about it & then decided I need to lay it out all for some kind of analysis. Because I have so many questions. Not just about his urge to tell a complete stranger, but also about the way he did it. When I tell y’all we were having the most mundane pass the time on public transit conversation? I mean it. It wasn’t like we even really exchanged names before he told me. Hell the Facebook thing seemed to be an afterthought because I didn’t start screaming, & there was no indication that he thought about whether or not I’d ever want to see or speak to him again.
I know no one can explain what happens to bring these things to my life, but can anyone explain this dude’s mindset to me? The possibility that he was actually traumatizing me didn’t seem to register. And to be honest I’m not sold that the girl they assaulted was real to him either. He said some things about how he couldn’t tell his sisters because they’d never look at him the same way so I assume they are real people to him. But even that was flat, he showed the most emotion when he talked about what it did to him. And yeah, I can guess some answers but if we’re not really people then why the grand confession?

Working Mothers Still Struggle to Find Pumping Space

            Every time Meagan Cavanaugh tries to pump breast milk, she braces herself for the sound of a coworker’s knock on the door. Her breastfeeding room is the same as the conference room at the national non-profit she works for. She has to sign up for a time slot to use the room, like everyone else in the office, to reserve pumping breaks for the next day.
          “Two of three times I’m there, people are trying to get in, completely disregarding that it’s reserved,” Cavanaugh said. “To pump successfully you need to be mentally relaxed and it’s challenging when people are always knocking.”
           The Federal health care law, or Obamacare, includes a provision that will allow women in                  Cavanaugh’s position to have access to private pumping rooms. The legislation requires employers to provide a room other than a bathroom for women to pump milk and ample break times to use the room.
Instead of forcing employers to recognize the health needs of mothers and babies, the law has had little effect on labor practices. Employers are either unaware of the law or fail to meet minimal standards, such as privacy and cleanliness. The federal government has offered state breastfeeding coalitions the funding needed to reach out to businesses and inform them of the new law’s requirements.
            Breastfeeding became important to the health care law when it became labeled a preventative health measure for both the mother and baby. Marsha Walker, lactation consultant and registered nurse, said breastfeeding is vital for babies because breast milk boosts the baby’s immune system to prevent sickness.
             “It’s extremely important to prevent leukemia, cancer and diabetes. It’s not just to prevent ear infections. It’s protection from both common and serious illnesses,” Walker said.
            Breastfeeding also preserves the mother’s health, Walker said, because the chance reproductive cancers and cardiac problems are more likely to occur when the body does not express breast milk.
If better enforced, federal law could level the playing field for mothers, especially low-income women who do not always have the option of staying home after-baby. When the rate of breastfeeding among women aged 19 to 35 was broken down among class, race and education, a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found clear disparities.
Black women, women with only a high school degree or less and women receiving WIC, a nutritional program for low-income women, infants and children, breast-fed less than other groups.
            Felina Rakowski Gallagher, owner of The Upper Breast Side in Manhattan, a breastfeeding consultation service, said she knows many working mothers resort to strange methods in order to pump milk, such as pumping milk from inside an electrical closet.
            “I don’t know what these employers are thinking,” she said. “They’re hiring women of childbearing age and then they think the cost of maternity leave and all of these other benefits are too high.”
            Babies’ n’ Business LLC helps companies set up lactation rooms, purchase pumps and provide supportive services. A registered nurse and lactation consultant at the company, Jane Balkam Ph.D., said businesses with as many as 4,000 employees need to be persuaded to give extra benefits.
            “Once companies know that it’s a win-win situation it’s not hard to persuade them to make that effort. But there is a lack of understanding in the business community about why they need to do it and why it is necessary,” Balkam said.
            Balkam said federal agencies account for a recent uptick in the number of employers requesting services from Babies’ n’ Business. She said federal agencies that are made aware of the new Obamacare provision are quick to adopt it but many large private sector companies are not aware the law exists.
The law is a challenge for small businesses as well said Laurel Pickering, spokesperson for the Northeast Business Group on Health centered in Manhattan.
            “For small businesses, it’s just a matter of space. We are a small business here and we have 30 to 35 people in the office. Until we redid the office, that was a struggle for us. Now we have room for a breastfeeding privacy room,” Pickering said.
            Pisticci, an Italian restaurant on La Salle Street in Manhattan, employs 33 people. Its manager, Elizabeth Powell, was not aware the regulation existed but she said she does keep a spare office room, which she said employees are free to use for breastfeeding.
            “It’s never been an issue but if needed we would provide it,” Powell said.
Breastfeeding mothers have often found their employers were willing to convert a room into a breastfeeding room but the room did not always meet their needs due to a lack of privacy or cleanliness.
            Working mothers find conditions are much less ideal because their employer offers scant breaks and unclean places to pump milk.
            An assistant editor who works at a major television network said she routinely uses co-worker’s offices when they are out or finds an empty neglected office inhabited by mice. She did not want to be named for fear of angering her employer.
            “There isn’t one place that is the pumping room for me.  I use one room most of the time but last week I found mouse droppings in there. No one should have to work with that,” she said.
            The 37 year-old assistant editor said it is difficult to work in a male-dominated industry with mostly fathers who do not face the same parenting responsibilities.
“It’s hard to be a woman in this business. It’s a hard situation for moms because even my union doesn’t know how to deal with it.  It’s just society in general that people think, ‘You just have to deal with it. It’s not my pregnancy so its not my problem,’” she said.
            Cassandra Adams, 23, gave birth to her child a month ago and plans to return to work as a Walgreens beauty advisor in Grand Island, New York. She said she knows she will have a sterile place to pump breast milk but she will be expected to pump during the lunch and break times she had before she gave birth. Adams said she is not sure she will be able to continue pumping if she can’t balance the break times she has with the pace of her job.
            Though many new mothers have experienced a lack of breaks and clean rooms in which to pump, there are a few exceptions. Lisa Mou, a strategy group manager, works at American Express, a company well known by breastfeeding advocates as one of a few companies that provide outstanding benefits to new mothers.
            The company pays for breastfeeding seminars at nursing schools, offers support groups, and gives employees 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Once employees return, the company helps them get in touch with lactation consultants. Mou also benefits from the basic breaks and breastfeeding rooms required by law.  
            Mou said she was touched by the company’s effort to reach out to new mothers because she never expected the level of support she received. The company allows her to take work home if she is feeling tired or overwhelmed.
“I had a hard time with my hours and I thought it would be a difficult situation to explain it to them but people were very supportive of it,” Mou said.
            *I wrote this story last spring as I was attending graduate school and did not find the time to pitch it to as many magazines as I would have liked. However, I think it's an important problem facing working mothers, and it should be brought to people's attention, even in a limited space such as my personal blog or a feminist community forum. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mad Men, Scandal, and Sexual Coercion

Last night's Mad Men was thoroughly entertaining in its kookiness, from Kenny Cosgrove's tap dancing (More Kenny please!) to Stan's drug-induced mania. But there was definitely a lot of darkness; more darkness than you see in an average Mad Men episode, which says a lot for "The Crash."

We find out that Don was beaten by his mother with a wooden spoon and told to sleep in the basement once he got sick. We also find out that a prostitute who once comforted him and brought him back to health sexually abused him. I know that viewers get tired of examining Don's neuroses, and I'm one of them, but I think this flashback made sense in the context of his recent behavior with Sylvia. Don has a hard time engaging in sex without playing a dominant or submissive role. The element of power has to be there. It hardly ever seems to center on mutual satisfaction or love.

In past episodes, Don hired a woman to slap him during sex. in the context of his abuse, that scene looks much different to me. His strange choice of words with Sylvia, and his desire to dominate her and have her confirm the idea that she only exists for his pleasure, has a whole new meaning. I'm not a psychologist and I can't pretend to know how often victims of sexual abuse bring issues of power and control into their relationships and I'm not claiming that all victims have emotionally broken relationships with their S.O.s as Don does. But I do know from interviews with psychologists, that past sexual abuse in one's childhood can have a significant effect on current adult relationships.

What disturbs me most about "The Crash" recaps I have read so far, is that none of these articles explore Don's sexual abuse by the prostitute. What happened to him is called "sex."

I don't know how old Don is supposed to be in that episode. I do know the audience would have received the scene differently if a man in his 20s or older nursed a teenage girl back to health, convincing her she was in safe, loving arms, far from her abusive father, and then proceeded to grope her as she lay stiffly in bed, barely registering what was happening to her. It would have been read as rape, or at worst, just plain immoral and wrong.

But he's a teenage boy, and she's an attractive blonde with ample breasts. Viewers assume he wanted to have sex with her, despite her creepy words (paraphrasing slightly) "That's okay. You don't have to do anything. I'll do the rest." Two adults enthusiastically consenting and actively pursuing the other is definition of sex, not a young boy laying on a bed while an adult woman touches him.

Scandal also dealt with sexual coercion in its own way. In one scene, a drunk President Fitzgerald Grant took a shower. His wife, Mellie, entered the shower and began to give him a blow job. Fitz continued to tell her to stop but she didn't listen. He eventually gave up.

This is not what people are trained to think of when they imagine rape. People are taught that rape victims are always women and perpetrators are always men. People are taught that force must be used, or that a perpetrator must threaten the victim with a weapon. Rape between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend is still difficult for some people to comprehend. It is even harder for some individuals to understand rape between boyfriend and boyfriend, girlfriend and girlfriend, husband and husband and wife and wife.

That is why the Fitz shower scene was received with about the same indifference as Don's scene with the prostitute. Men love sex. Men love blow jobs. How could these men have been raped?

We need to think differently about men and the way men can be coerced into sexual acts. We need to question assumptions about how men view sex. We need to reinforce the idea that a man can say "No" and really mean it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stop Telling Me to Make Female-Driven Things If I Want Them

I was having a conversation with someone about sexualized images of women, i.e. posters of half naked women in office environments. I pointed out that the problem is not with partial nudity in itself but the context behind having a sexualized image of a woman hanging in an office in a field that is dominated by men. I said it would have been another matter if there was a poster of sexualized, half-naked man on the wall, and proceeded to point out that the female gaze is usually ignored if not considered nonexistent by advertisers.

He essentially responded, "If you want your own images of half-naked men, make them."

His argument was that I should become a photographer and take pictures of half-naked men (or draw them) for a living if I wanted those images out there for public consumption.

If I were making my living as a photographer, it would be great idea. It would be an even better idea if I were a known photographer who had connections to decent galleries or worked for an advertising company that was receptive to this idea. However, it's an argument that men happy with the status quo generally throw out whenever women complain that an industry doesn't serve them. And it's a very weak one.

"If you think video games don't feature enough female characters, become a game designer and make your own video game!"

"If you think easily accessible mainstream pornography treats women like dirt, make your own pornography!"

Those statements try to oversimplify complicated problems and put the onus on women instead of men for failing to acknowledge women's humanity, as if it's assumed that men never will and never should have empathy for women and want to write our stories, or shoot our advertisements or direct our porn. The trouble with that statement is not that it asks women to be activist. Women should be activist. The trouble with that statement is that it totally abandons the idea of men being part of the solution and more specifically, a part of the feminist movement.

It also fails to acknowledge the fact that most movements do need help from the people who have financial, social and political power over them in order to work. A lot of women are doing these things, but it's hard to bring them to fruition when the people who hold the purse strings are still predominantly male. The people who run the businesses that decide how to market a product are mostly men, and the people who decide whether or not your porn gets distributed or marketed well are men.

Women should not have to quit their jobs as nurses to make porn because there isn't any porn out there that suits them. That's nonsensical. If a woman who majored in film as an "aha" moment and this presents itself as a creative and smart business opportunity, that's great! But that nurse shouldn't have to leave her career to find things that exist for her. It should be out there because the need exists and someone in the industry recognized it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mad Men, The View, and Blow Jobs

If you saw Episode 6 of Mad Men, you heard Megan's sexy French mother tell her that she should solve her problems with Don by placating him with sex and reminding him that he is her top priority. We see Megan desperately try to save her marriage by wearing a little less fabric, talking less, and getting on her knees. In past episodes, Megan has talked about whatever is on her mind; assured that Don will listen and offer some feedback or advice. Sometimes he has, but lately he just stares zombie-like into the distance, thinking of his mistress a couple floors away.

That isn't really Megan's problem, however. What do I mean by that? Don is the person who is pulling away and he should be held responsible for his lack of communication. His passive aggressive behavior towards Megan makes it abundantly clear that he is not committed to working on the marriage. But instead of Megan confronting him and asking why he is upset and what he is thinking, she is expected to comfort him. Despite the fact that she is the one who has been left in the cold.

A few days later, I watched The View on Hulu (There wasn't a new Daily Show to watch) and I heard Sherri Shepherd and Patricia Heaton endorse the "blow jobs for conflict revolution" advice featured in Mad Men, a show about the 1960s.

This was also a reaction to a statement Gwyneth Paltrow made earlier: "One of my friends was like, 'I got in a big fight with my husband and I went home and I just wanted to scream and yell,' and I said, 'Whatever you're feeling, do the opposite. Go at him with love and you give him a blowjob.'"

Sherry Shepherd asked Heaton, "In Hot Topics, we were talking about keeping your man happy. Do you need to stay on your knees? You've been married for a long time."

"It's very simple. It's very simple. It's exactly what Gwyneth said," Heaton replied. "I had an actor say to me once, 'All men want you to do is to blow a kiss in the direction of our...' They're very simple, they like long hair, which is why I'm growing mine out, and they like uh, affection."

It's always a sad moment when relationship advice for women in the 1960s mirrors relationship advice for women in 2013.

Here is the main takeaway. When all of these women, real or fictional, were faced with a relationship problem, they saw it as solely their problem. Arguments don't fall out of the sky. People have intense arguments for a reason. Something is wrong and it needs to be addressed. It appears that none of the women involved thought problems with their husbands were shared problems, or even a problem that he was responsible for creating. But no matter who is more responsible for facilitating the problem that led to the fight, both people need to communicate if they are to work on their marriage or relationship.

It's not sage advice. That's common sense. Ignoring problems doesn't make them go away. If you're angry with your husband, and you give him a blow job, he's not angry anymore. But you are. The problem momentarily disappeared for one person. Hardly a success story. In this scenario, only one person's feelings count, and they are those of the husband's.

This is a reflection of a much bigger assumption: That women are the stewards of relationships. Even today, women don't expect men to communicate and work on the larger problems within their relationship. The solution is to sacrifice so that you don't give him a reason to argue with you. Not once have I heard a man on television suggest that a husband ought to consider giving his wife make-up oral sex. But in one week I hear four television stars and one movie star advise women to give their husbands blow-jobs to resolve fights. Clearly the expectation as to who will mend the relationship is still on the woman's side.

We need to stop putting all of the onus of maintaining our relationships on ourselves. We can never carve out an equal place for ourselves in our personal lives if we take all responsibility for our relationships and friendships' failures. Ask something of your significant other now and then. Don't be Megan Draper.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

RadioShack Sells Sex in New Dreadfully Banal Ad

I'm not sure what's more sad and predictable: That RadioShack is telling its remaining female customers to talk a long walk on a short pier or that the rest of their customers have bought into it.

RadioShack, a company that is in serious trouble, has become exceedingly desperate and decided that the very real problems their company faces can be solved with a heavy serving of t&a. I think RadioShack could take a more honest approach, however. They could simply play this great classic by DJ Assault and gather a few models together for a car wash scene. Maybe the car would be covered in RadioShack logos. They could try to incorporate the image of electronics in there somehow, but why don't they take a bold, Mad Men-like strategy and forgo the image of the product entirely?

Here is the real ad if you'd like to take a gander:

As Wall Street Journal writer Ann Zimmerman put it, "Not subtle."

My biggest problem with advertisements like these is not that I think it's never okay to sell sex, but that companies selling products that aren't inherently gendered always chose to favor the male gaze. The female gaze doesn't exist to RadioShack, or beer companies, or car companies. I don't have time to list how many companies ignore women and our perspective in these advertisements on a regular basis. The only companies vying for straight women's attention are Oikos, H&M (though I think gay men are also a target in that ad) and Kraft.

Apparently straight men don't eat yogurt or use salad dressing, and looking fashionable is not a high priority. After working with some Rush Limbaugh-listening construction workers who once bragged that Kashi GoLean was both tasty AND healthy (several of whom refused my offer of cookies as they were on a diet), I think these companies could question some of their assumptions about what men and women like.

On top of that, I always find it interesting that these companies can't sell sex in a more sophisticated way. Putting a speaker in a hot dog bun isn't simply offensive because it presents young women as vapid sex objects. The fact that its ad is a black hole of imagination and creativity is cringeworthy in itself. After all, they stole it from a music video.

Women, like men, are sexy. But that doesn't mean we need to be presented as porn stars: silent, mouths agape, kneeling on all fours. It is impossible for many of these companies to design an ad that encompasses this idea: Women can be sexy without being passive objects. Women can be active humans, who have thoughts, say more than two words, have goals unrelated to the male libido and still be sexy doing them.

I think this commercial sells sex tastefully. It's simple and it's enough.

A breakthrough for women? No. And it doesn't have to be. It just allows Christina Hendricks to sell something without getting on all fours or pretending to eat a phallic object. The drink is obviously being compared to Christina Hendrick's image, "classic" and "bold." If we're going to keep selling sex, and targeting straight men, which will happen as long as straight men and alcohol exists, I'd rather that companies refined their advertising and presented women in a way that allowed them to appear more human than fembot. I guess it isn't too much to ask, but a little taste goes a long way.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Catcaller Response: "Maybe You Shouldn't Have Moved to Harlem."

I was walking my usual route on a beautiful May day and the same things happened. People scrambled past each other on the same narrow scrap of pavement. People boarded and exited the buses, blocking my way. People yelled stuff at me. Not all of the things people yell at me are bad. Sometimes people say I have a nice hat. But I get tired of people who feel the need to tell a stranger what they think of how she looks. I don't exist for you. At this moment I exist for feeling the hot summer sun on my skin or buying some milk because it ran out. At this moment I exist for perusing Essie nail polishes at Duane Reade, deciding I don't want any, and leaving. I don't exist to please you.

I was close to the end of my route. I was almost home. And then someone called out to me:

"You look nice in that outfit today. Damn."

It definitely wasn't the most offensive thing I'd ever heard but it was the last straw. All week I encountered men on the street who walked within inches of me, leaning forward, staring at my ass as I passed by, whispering not-so-sweet nothings to me. They muttered "compliments" behind my back, startling me. He was also walking behind me when he said it, and this startled me yet again. I looked at him. He was all smiles and sunshine as he walked jauntily alongside me. He didn't look menacing. But I was tired of it and I said:

"I think women just want to walk down the street without being bothered."

"What? I didn't say you look hot! I didn't say..."

"That's okay. Nevermind."

I was beginning to wonder if it was really worth it. I had better things to do than talk to this guy. I could already tell he wasn't going to take me seriously. As I turned the corner to my apartment, he kept yelling at me from afar.

"What? There's nothing you can do about it. It's not my fault. Maybe it's God's fault that he put you here on this earth. Maybe you shouldn't be in this neighborhood. Maybe you shouldn't have moved to Harlem!"

Wonderful. First he used flattery to persuade me to back down. You're beautiful, so it's not my fault I noticed, mean lady. But he really said "You exist to be ogled. God made you to be ogled because he made you into a woman. How is it my fault that you're a woman and you exist?"

Then he put down Harlem as a neighborhood. I have received catcalls in Harlem, the Lower East Side and Times Square. I may have received more catcalls in Harlem because that's where I live and walk on a regular basis, but for every one of him there is a man in Harlem who didn't catcall me or anyone else. Someone should stand up for those guys.

I wish I hadn't given up. I wish I had tried. But this gets exhausting. And some men still question if this really is sexual harassment. Some men think it's rude but that it isn't sexual harassment because the attention has to be unwanted, and how does the man in question know she wouldn't appreciate it? Just take a minute to think about that. You don't know for certain if a complete stranger wants your feedback on how she looks, but you're going to err on the side of "Yes." Why is that? Is it because you've been raised to think women always care about how their physical presentation affects you? Because you think this is vital information that she needs to know?

Catcalling exists because a) Some men truly believe that women care about their feedback on how they look by virtue of the fact that they are men and women exist to visually please men, among other things, b) They enjoy exerting power over women they don't know on the street because they can't exert power in other relationships with women, and this is what they settle for, and c) They're bonding with other men over their tastes in women like they would over a menu at a new restaurant they're trying.

There could be a myriad of other reasons that I didn't list, but "They like to give compliments." is not among them.

The next time I have this conversation with a stranger on the street, I'll follow through. I'll say the words I've been meaning to say for a long time but never had the courage to muster: "I don't exist for you."

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Mansplainer Argument I'm Most Tired of Hearing

           I can rehearse statistics on rape or explain why feminism is not a zero sum game, listing how its ideals benefit men, or deconstruct why something is sexist but all of these well-reasoned arguments, all of these facts and experiences mean absolutely nothing the minute the guy in front of me says:

         "Oh, come on."

         In three words, everything I said has been destroyed, obliterated; become null and void. Those words are death in any argument about feminism despite the fact that they mean absolutely nothing. There isn't a single rational argument in those words, and yet, it works. It works the way that "calm down" and "chill out" does. It makes the person you're arguing against angry as hell, but also confused as to why they don't know what to say next. They don't know why they are speechless and yet, they just can't put together any words in defense.

         It's one of the greatest Jedi mind tricks a sexist can ever play against a feminist, especially if the feminist is a woman.

        Woman are used to doubting themselves. We have been socialized to make other people comfortable, which as feminists, leads us to wonder if we have gone too far in expressing our point of view. In the past, when I have countered something a male friend of mine has said about feminism and or assumptions about women, even when he has patiently listened and may be receptive to what I've said, I may still knee-jerk apologize after I've said it. "What are you apologizing for?" he might say. I'll say I don't know. But I do know. In the back of my head I'm always wondering if my point of view is distasteful to others, which is a feeling I'm not sure MRAs (men's rights activists) are accustomed to. Feminists tend to wonder if they're alienating men from the conversation, which can be a legitimate concern as we need to rally men to our cause, but too much concern neuters the meaning of what we're doing. A Bikini Kill lyric also comes to mind:

       "I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you. Your whole fucking culture alienates me."

        "Oh come on" looks like a form of gaslighting as well. If you're not familiar with the term, gaslighting refers to the movie, "Gaslight," where a woman's husband presents false information to convince her that what she perceives to be true is actually incorrect, disorienting her and causing her to question her own sanity. Obviously this is a more subtle form of it, but those three words are meant to shake a woman  and say, "Snap out of it! This is just so ludicrous. Can't you see that?" But the words don't actually form an argument to tell her why. It just makes her question her perception and wonder if it is exaggerated. Maybe she's getting worked up over nothing; a common assertion made by mansplainers when they don't have real facts and arguments to combat what a feminist is saying.

        The next time someone says "Oh, come on," simply tell them, "I don't hear an argument in there." or "How does 'Oh, come on" address what I've said about rape culture?" How does it address the fact, that despite women's educational progress, they still make less money than men and represent such a small minority of business leaders and politicians? How does "Oh, come on" counter the fact that a) What you just said about women not being suited to race car driving is sexist b) That women are still not starting their careers and personal lives from a place that is equal to men c) That the problems men face with child custody are a result of the patriarchy, not feminism?

        Don't let those three little words let you lose confidence.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Models Who Can't Decide: Repeating the Devil and Angel Theme

          I recently read Slate writer Katy Waldman's piece in reaction to Models Who Can't Decide, a tumblr that collects stock images of women looking quizzically at apples and donuts, among other foods, trying to decide if they should eat healthily or indulge. In the piece, "We Can't Decide How We Feel About 'Models Who Can't Decide'," Waldman talks about the representation of food as good and evil and our obsession with women's relationship to food. After all, there is only one man looking quizzically at food on the tumblr page.

        Then I remembered that I wrote a paper about this for a media class I took in my sophomore year of college for a Mass Media class. We analyzed advertising images and the one I choose happened to revolve around a woman struggling to decide between good and evil: A protein bar and dessert. I don't have the image and I couldn't find it, but I describe it below. I bolded the parts that I think are most relevant. In total the message is that a) overindulgence for women is bad no matter what the indulgence is, b) women feel more guilty about eating "forbidden" foods, and c) beauty is always emphasized over health.

                                   "Eat Good. Look Great."

               Flipping through the pages of Redbook I found an advertisement for protein bars in candy and ice cream flavors. The ad contains at the very top two panels of the same woman. In one panel, she is a devil and in the other panel, she is depicted as an angel. In the devil panel the woman is wearing red against a red background, computer imposed devil horns growing out. There are small differences between her and the angel on the other side that you may not notice until you look for a while.

               The devil wears black eyeliner, heavy blush and red glossy lipstick. Her hair is tousled and looks enlarged with hairspray. She’s wearing large silver earrings shaped like a paper clip. Her look is trendy not classic, maybe on the trashy side. Her tongue and bottom teeth stick out as she makes a wide grin and her eyes are dilated, with the eyebrows angling downwards. Frequently women wearing a lot of makeup are associated with promiscuity. The tousled hair and modern jewelry juxtaposed with the angel suggest that all of these aesthetics are “bad”. Since the common theme of this ad is guilt, it’s no wonder the stereotype of the “bad” woman looks this way. Since the devil represents evil, this just further perpetuates the stereotype that evil in women is represented by promiscuity.

              The devil is holding a pie, which is topped with whipped cream in and gobs of fudge. The red cherry on top is close to her face; its bright red popping against her crimson lips. The Janice Dickenson style smile is supposed to look seductive, just like the dessert. It’s quite possible that the dessert and sex are correlated. Bryan Wilson Keys explains in his book, “Subliminal Seduction,” that sex and death are both issues we constantly repress, so ads look to bring out these feelings in order to convince us to buy the product. He derives this idea from Freud’s theory that sex and death are repressed ideas that always exist in the subconscious [i]. The idea is that overindulgence in sex can lead to guilt, and so can overindulgence in food.  

               In contrast, the angel is wearing a grey shirt and a necklace of gold and pearls. The hair is neat and tidy. The makeup is minimal and the lips are salmon pink, not red. The look is very classic and the virginal absence of over-embellishment may symbolize a re-purification of your life through the product. She is holding the dish in a praying gesture. Her posture is upright, not hunched slightly like the devil and her centered body brings attention to the panel with the product, a wrapped protein bar. Her face is calm and demure. The centered body suggests renewal of balance in your life.

            Guilt is a huge motivator when it comes to persuading women to buy a product. Women tend to stay focused on their guilt longer then men and it’s likely to make them more depressed and feel helpless. A 2004 University of Minnesota study showed that women are twice as likely as men to be depressed, and tend to turn to sweet desserts for comfort, resulting in guilt, which could lead to more eating [ii].

           The guilt-relieving protein bar is then very attractive to a good number of women, especially when it suggests immunity from indulgence as this one does. The angel’s protein bar is called chocolate peanut butter, offering great taste without the consequences. The consequence women worry about is the weight gain associated with desserts. But in its clever packaging and label, this protein bar doesn’t seem gluttonous at

            In the large font under the panels, the slogan reads “Eat Good. Look Great.” The word “Great” is underlined. Looking great is obviously going to be more emphasized than eating well because women are motivated to eat well only for the purpose of looking great. Looking great will always be the primary reason for selling products to women in ads. These ads are tailored for pre-existing beliefs, perpetuating and exaggerating the “need” for women to look great. The image of what is “good” for women in this ad is to be aesthetically pleasing, a common theme in every medium.

            In the type below the slogan there is the use of words and phrases “like high-quality”, “protein”, and “active lifestyle” to convince the reader of its health benefits. The immunity from guilt is repeated with “sinfully delicious” and “heavenly flavors,” reminding the reader that it is possible to combine chocolate and health. The emphasis of the phrase “high protein” is the effect of the Dr. Atkins Diet on the marketing of food. Protein is much desirable than carbohydrates now in the weight loss department, so women have been looking for protein to lose weight [iii].

           “According to a study published last year by Morgan Stanley, ‘19 per cent of U.S. adults are either currently on a low-carb diet or have tried one earlier this year, which is three to five times higher than many previous public estimates.’”

           Ads for protein bars aimed at women have always reinforced the conventional beauty ideal: slender, young or young-looking, and most typically white. In 2001, EAS protein bars, normally advertised to muscle-seeking men, were pitched to women. Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford were portrayed in the television ad as soccer moms leading busy lives, showing you can have the perfect body and be a busy mother [iv].

            I chose this ad because the contrast between the panels grabbed my attention. When I saw the obvious differences between the women in the panels and the message of guilt, it reminded me of ads women see in beauty magazines. It is a “before and after” type of ad because the message is carried through it’s juxtaposition of the same woman in different panels. This juxtaposition is much more obvious though than “before and after” ads because its idea of what is good and bad is shown through the devil and angel. The ad’s message is direct and simple which makes it more effective.

          The ad’s suggestive details, like the difference in makeup and hair have underlying messages but they don’t qualify as being a part of the traditional idea of what subliminal advertising is. In the book, “Advertising and Popular Culture” edited by Sammy R. Danna, a researcher suggests that subliminal advertising hasn’t been shown effective to the mass media. “Procedures for the development of commercial exploitation appear so unlikely that subliminal stimulation can initiate subsequent action, to say nothing of commercially or politically significant action.[v]

           While the elements of sex and death we may be repressing are part of the emotional appeals found in advertising, they probably do not constitute as subliminal advertising but as more of an unhidden subtext.

[i] Wilson Bryan Keys, Subliminal Seduction. Illinois: Prentice Hall, 1981 : p113-115

[ii] Academic Premier (3/24/07) Denise Foley, “lose weight like a guy”. Prevention May 2006: p158-217.

[iii] Academic Premier (3/28/07) Donald Coxe, “Sex is Out, Carbs are In”.
            Maclean’s February 2, 2004:p.34.

[iv] Academic Premier (3/28/07) Goetzl, David, “New EAS Ads Aim to Attract Women”. The Advertising Age January 1, 2001: p.4.

[v] Eric J. Zanot, Sammy R. Danna, Advertising in Popular Culture. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992: p.61

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dear Gentleman Scholar: Shaking Hands With a Woman Is Easy

You see a business associate at a conference. You meet a new co-worker at the plant. Your boss wants to meet with you for a second.

But there's a complication! The person in question is a female. Tricky stuff. What do you do?

Hold out your hand. Shake it two to three times firmly whilst making eye contact. All fingers, yes. Smile and continue with business.

Shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex should be that simple, but unfortunately others don't see it that way. Gentleman Scholar (yes, that is the name of his advice column) Troy Patterson offered up some advice to a befuddled fellow gentleman. The man wrote to Patterson after he shook hands with one woman, who didn't appreciate his firm grip. For all Patterson or I know, it was a bone-crunching death grip. Then he offered a woman a limp handshake, and she didn't like that at all! It's almost like different women have different reactions to different kinds of social communication!

The advice-seeker is upset because he did everything he could to please these strange creatures called women but apparently there is no right way to satisfy these people. The first mistake that both the advice seeker and advice giver make is assuming there is one correct way to treat as varied a population as women.

The second mistake is made by Patterson, who goes on to explain that women are delicate little teacups that require gentle care.

The Gentleman Scholar knows that a gentleman always treats a woman gently. He breaks this rule only at her encouragement, like if she’s begging you to pull her hair or something—a rather more clear-cut form of physical communication than that which concerns us today. 

Now, unless he's referring to elementary school antics, Patterson is conflating rules around sex with a business practice, saying that you should use the same considerations and rules you use in a heteronormative dating situation. Even comedically, this is wrong on so many levels.  During the debate over comments the president made to Attorney General Kamala Harris, several men commented to reaction pieces by saying, "What, I can't even compliment a woman I'm on a date with now? I can't even approach a woman at a bar by saying she's attractive?" Some men can't talk about interacting with women without referring to sex and dating because they see women as wives and girlfriends first and co-workers and bosses second.

He then tells this man to relax. Men have never known how to deal with women in a business setting!

Flipping through books on professional etiquette, we discover tales of men who’ve worked in sales for 20 years without ever feeling at ease shaking hands with the opposite sex.

Am I right, gentlemen?

There is a reason it's been so difficult for men to feel at ease shaking hands with the opposite sex. In some male-dominated environments, say business, politics, tech-startups, ivy league academia, I could go on...men don't do it very often! They don't see women often enough, as equal colleagues or as bosses, to understand how they should interact with them. This is a product of sexism. It is not because women are beguiling mermaids or sphinxes; riddles men will never guess the answer to, as Patterson eludes to here:

Basic intimate contact is such a marvelously complex issue that it makes the Gentleman Scholar want to get all scholarly and apprehend its slippery meanings.

He cites scholarly papers on the handshake issue. He quotes Cliff Goddard's Semantic Analysis. We're at a really intellectual place right now, because after all he is the Gentleman Scholar.

Now, when you’re shaking hands with another able-bodied adult male, you will likely want to be more assertive than that. But those are the basics of the thing—mano a mano compression, mutual exploration, manual self-expression.

I find the words "able-bodied adult male" interesting. Maybe Patterson is just trying to be as clear as possible and tell his readers that you should not hurt a little boy's hand or...someone whose hand is not functioning or has arthritis? But I think this should be common knowledge. I find the words he chose interesting because a history of chivalry has assumed weakness and childlike tendencies from women, and the weak handshake is just an extension of that. Some women have spent an entire day pushing another human being out of their bodies. Some women have climbed mountains or ran marathons. Women are not inherently fragile. My hands are so small that it takes some real work to find a ring size that fits me, but I would rather get the death grip any day than have a man approach me as if I were Princess of Monaco.

At the end of this drawn out handshake guide, Patterson says one useful thing that he should have led with up top.

A moment’s reflection should lead a guy to realize that his grip is equipped with a self-regulating pressure gauge: Shaking hands with a woman, he, like the lab hand-shakers, allows his partner to determine the force of the shake and responds in kind.
Ah, I see. So I should see how the person reacts and then decide what kind of pressure I should use? How novel! At the end of the day, women are human beings. Some of us give the death grip and others give limp handshakes, and everything in between. Because we're all very different, like men.