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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What the Gwyneth Paltrow Debacle Tells Us About Modesty Culture

Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow is selling child bikinis on her Goop site. Classic Paltrow. The first thought that came to my mind was, "How ridiculous!" rather than "How scandalous!" I think a child bikini is as superfluous as it gets. Children do not have breasts to support or hide. Before one even gets into the debate over whether women should feel pressured to wear tops at all on a beach, I will tackle the debate over whether female children should feel pressured to cover their chests.

I won't try to minimize concern over pedophiles, but I think the way we're debating child bikinis has something to do with how we talk about women preventing their own rapes. Child rapists will not stop before molesting or raping a child and think, "No, this girl is too modest. She clearly isn't asking for it, like 'black bikini' over there." If you are a rapist of children or women, cloth will not deter you. One pieces will not deter you.

Others are concerned with telling children that they should be sexy. But bikinis are not inherently sexy. The revealing of skin and nudity overall isn't inherently about sex. The problem with our culture is that we equate nude or partially nude bodies with sex, even if they are children. We still worry that it must have something to do with sex. And it's sad that young girls should be worried about their dress being interpreted as sexual before they even grow breasts. At some point prevention of sexualization becomes the vehicle for sexualization and placing importance on modesty at the same time.

In my past writing, I have talked about how teachers at school occasionally thought I dressed inappropriately. I wore a baggy flannel shirt but the buttons weren't high enough. In fourth grade, I attended a 1950s-themed school dance. My mom, a conservative dresser herself, picked out a shirt that tied up above the waist. I had to change or I couldn't dance. My best friend once wore a Geisha-like outfit for Halloween and was made to change out of it, because Geishas are prostitutes. (Actually, the history of the Geisha is a lot more complicated than that.)

The twist-tie shirt looked almost exactly like this, except Elizabeth Taylor wasn't filling it out. That should make a difference, right?

My point is that all of the concern over modesty is misplaced and hurtful, not helpful. We were made to feel like we did something wrong. It's bad enough for women to be slut-shamed, but slut-shaming children is despicable. Instead of protecting female children from the big bad world where their worth is tied up with what clothes they're wearing, a world that often reduces them to sex objects, they are giving children a taste of it early. Before they even grow breasts, they know that their bodies are something to be ashamed of. They are taught the exposure of the body, for women, is connected with what level of class they belong to.

Yes, Goop's bikinis are silly. But they're silly because they have a top half. Girls and boys shouldn't have to cover up their chests on the beach because their chests really aren't any different from one another. If one is sexualized, the other must be. The argument that many modesty advocates use on adult women (That because women's breasts are different than men's, and seen as sexual objects by men, they are inherently sexual) doesn't apply to this scenario.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What The Good Wife Needs To Do About Will and Peter

I am one of many women who have become addicted to The Good Wife, a show that actually has a lot of female writers and a bevy of three dimensional, complicated female characters played by talented actresses. It's hard to find shows that don't reduce women to tropes, and The Good Wife has the added bonus of a bisexual character and gay character, both of which are not terribly stereotyped.

But I digress. From the beginning, the show has been set up to display a rivalry between two men, Will Gardner and Peter Florrick; who I would argue are the least interesting characters on the show. They need to be on the show because they are representative of the cutthroat environment that is politics or the practice of law in Chicago. But the rivalry between them is dull because they are the same breed. Whenever I think of a perfect love triangle, I think of men who are very different from each other. Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes are the perfect foil of each other. To some degree, Peter Florrick and Will Gardner are both Rhett Butler: smart, shrewd and well dressed men who tend to play outside the rules because they think the rules don't apply to them. Hey, one of them even cavorts with prostitutes!

I wondered what could be done to make the show more interesting, because as it is, the show relies on a stereotype about women, even though so much of it is groundbreaking. Alicia has developed as a lawyer, as a mother and as a person in general. Yet her destiny on the show is defined by her relationship with these powerful, albeit dull, men. She is interesting enough on her own. She is involved in intellectually challenging cases and power rivalries at work. The ultimate season finale that I'm looking for? No! Series finale? Alicia doesn't choose Will or Peter. She chooses herself. The series finale ends with her sitting down in a big comfy chair whilst drinking a glass of wine after a long day of whooping ass in court. It would be a much more original ending than anyone would have expected.

Originally I thought Alicia would do well to meet a third man, maybe a man totally disconnected from the firm or Chicago politics. Shocker: What if he weren't a lawyer? What if he worked in a bookstore? What if he was a high school math teacher? But that is unlikely to happen. A certain segment of the audience needs to believe that the ultimate dream of a woman as successful as Alicia will always be to attach herself to the wealthiest or most powerful (or both) man in the room. Either way, if the writers of The Good Wife don't take advantage of this chance to tell a lesson about Alicia's growth I'm going to be very disappointed. But a girl can still dream of a Cary Agos and Kalinda Sharma wedding.

To Everyone Who Called Feminists Chicken Littles: Roe v. Wade Decision Could Be At Risk

Dating back to the 2004 election, I can remember both conservatives and liberals telling me not to worry about the outcome, because, let's face it, no one is going to overturn Roe. v. Wade. During the 2012 election, I wrote about the general apathy some of my male friends showed toward women's issues, which they considered tangential to the election. They were more concerned about the evil of the two-party system, among other things. I didn't disagree with them but pointed out that as white men, they have the luxury of taking a chance on a third party candidate.

But this election season, I saw more posts than ever encouraging people not to vote, or to stop throwing this do-goody voting thing in their faces. Some of the posts suggested that social issues like gay marriage and abortion were hijacking the debate. As I read these posts, something else sank in. 

I noticed it not only when I looked through the endless feed of election related Facebook posts, but looking back to every single time I heard the apathetic mumbles of my generation. Those snide, holier than thou remarks, telling us that our votes don't really count. Who did they come from? Young white men.

Young white men have plenty to lose in a general election. But they don’t have as much to lose. It is the luxury of a privileged group to separate itself from the drab responsibilities of every day life and look down upon the conventional, less than perfect path ahead. It is the luxury of a group that has always had the right to vote since the country’s founding, to take that vote for granted. 

It is the luxury of a privileged group to tell less privileged groups to calm down, because even if the other guy wins, your rights aren’t really in danger. It’s easier to call Democrats’ appeal to women voters fear mongering when you haven’t actually wondered how soon a group of politicians would start to chip away at your personal agency.

Not only is that argument reductionist (feminist women care about helluva lot more than Roe b. Wade) but the idea that Roe v. Wade will be protected forever is just patently false.

North Dakota's governor recently signed a law banning all abortions in the state. And many other states are chipping away at abortion rights as well. This trend could ensure a Supreme Court battle happens sometime in the near future, which is ultimately what conservatives want.

Here is a New York Times graphic that breaks down recent developments in states' battle for abortion rights:

To read more on how this North Dakota law could provide a constitutional challenge and overturn Roe  v. Wade read here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Response to Samantha Daniels' "10 Types of Women Men Do Not Want to Marry"

Samantha Daniels, a professional matchmaker, has written an article on the Huffington Post's Women blog. The Huffington Post's Women blog is just lovely by the way. Among the blog categories HuffPo thinks women should care about: Healthy Living, Weddings, Divorce, Style, Fifty...Parents...you get the idea. We don't care about sports and foreign policy, am I right, ladies? I'm telling you this so you understand the context for why Daniels is publishing her wonderful matchmaking advice on The Huffington Post Women's blog as opposed to anywhere else.

She provides a few tropes of women men should avoid marrying. This is not groundbreaking. Women have written pieces about types of men you shouldn't date or marry as well. Some of the qualities are understandable. Why would you want to be with a jealous woman or a woman who is trying to fundamentally change you? But some of the descriptions on the list are innately gendered.

Like Miss Bossy Pants:

This woman usually can't help herself; she has bossy in her DNA. When a man first meets her, he might think this character trait is cute, for awhile. However, once he starts to feel like he is in grammar school being told what to do by his second grade teacher, he will give this woman her walking papers.

First of all, she thinks the term "walking papers" is clever. Secondly, she isn't saying this woman is abusive or controlling. She doesn't say she's the female version of Patrick Bergen in "Sleeping With The Enemy." But good lord, don't you hate it when a woman tells you to do something? She's just like that second grade teacher who thought she could tell you what to do just because you were acting like a  child. How annoying.

It reminds me of how Neil Cavuto of Fox News once spoke of how men couldn't handle the idea of Hillary Clinton as president because they would hear their wives nagging them. The fact that assertive women are perceived as "nagging" is the whole reason Daniels lists Miss Bossy. However, you will see other traditionalist matchmakers like Patti Stanger tell women they should expect men to lead the date and pick the place. A "bossy" man isn't supposed to be a turn-off for women.

But I saved the best for last. Miss I Don't Eat is the worst offender.

Miss "I Don't Eat": This woman picks at her food, is on a never-ending diet or doesn't eat pretty much everything that most people eat. When a man first meets her, he thinks to himself, at least she will never become overweight, but eventually he realizes that it's no fun to eat alone. The fact is men like to eat; they like steak, they like trying different foods, they like dessert and women should be eating too, at least sometimes.

Part of me thinks the author ran out of tropes so she started scraping the bottom of the trope barrel. This stereotype exists thanks to a sexist expectation of "effortless perfection." It isn't enough to BE perfect, or at least very close to perfect according to mainstream beauty standards. You also have to act as if you didn't even try to achieve it. So instead of simply eating less or eating differently to maintain her weight, the skinny girl should eat whatever makes her significant other happy, then work out for hours to burn off that fried fish sandwich, or perhaps take a trip to the bathroom...? I would hope that the author would never advocate for bulimia, but she clearly thinks the man's expectation is that she stay thin and eat "normal" food. There are only so many options available.

I find it especially funny that most of the commenters on the article are men, all of whom agree with her, except one, who appreciates Miss I Live For You and Have Nothing Else Going On:

I agree with most these, although I've never experienced a woman waiting by the door for me and I believe it would be nice.

It looks like Daniels may have read her audience wrong. The kind of men she is appealing to ARE looking for Miss I Live For You and Have Nothing Else Going on. Because that is the only kind of woman who would take this advice seriously.

If you want to check out Lindy West's takedown of Daniels' listicle, here is the link. She takes it as seriously as it should be, which is not at all. My favorite is Mr. "Nyeeehhhhhhh, I Work for the Phone Company and I'm Wearing a Windbreaker." I would totally go on a date with that guy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The President's Support of Age Restrictions on Birth Control is the Opposite of "Common Sense."

After a judge recently overruled the decision to put age limits on the morning after pill, President Barack Obama defended the decision by calling age restrictions “common sense.” In reality, age restrictions defy common sense, and more importantly, science. Scientists and medical professionals at the Food and Drug Administration, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Medical Association and other groups support access to birth control without age restrictions.

The president has made major contributions to women’s reproductive rights. At the same time he has taken two steps back at the behest of religious authorities and conservatives, both of whom have demonstrated a failure to understand basic biological functions of the female body, which should preclude them from all discussions of reproductive health.

A little more than a month ago, the president announced that religious employers are no longer mandated to cover contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Now the president continues to support Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to keep age restrictions on the morning after pill, a young woman’s last-ditch effort to prevent pregnancy when she does not have access to monthly birth control pills or an IUD.

Twice, the president could have said no to conservatives, political or ecclesiastical, and let access to birth control and emergency contraception expand. His choice is curious, since, during the election, he boldly embraced controversial issues such as reproductive rights and gay marriage, issues that were once defined by the conservative narrative. In the campaign’s Life of Julia slideshow, Julia is shown entering a pharmacy where she has access to family planning methods. The depiction of a young woman buying birth control as normal and acceptable would appear to be a great step forward for young women. It is interesting, however, that the slideshow doesn’t get into family planning until age 27.

I am sure the White House staff knows that most women have sex and therefore need birth control before the reproductively mature age of 27. On average, women lose their virginity at age 17. The ability to talk about young women having sex, however, is still fraught with misplaced concern; concern rooted in a culture that is scared of women’s sexuality.

The president maintains that children as young as 11 years-old could take the morning after pill and experience health problems. Even if we were to assume that 11 year-olds were sexually active, very few of them are likely to get pregnant. According to a study by Pediatrics, 0.6 percent of 10 year-olds 1.1 percent of 11 year-olds and 2.4 percent of 12 year-olds have engaged in sex. The argument over 11 year-old expectant mothers doesn’t even begin to address why the age limit wasn’t set at a younger age, such as 15 years-old or 16 years-old. According to a 2007 study by the Center for Disease Control, 16 percent of all adults surveyed lost their virginity before the age of 15. It is a minority but it is high enough to raise concern over limits on emergency contraception, especially when 49% of all American pregnancies are unplanned. The facts also negate the conservative argument that emergency contraception will encourage young people to have unprotected sex and spread diseases. Condom use was highest among adolescents, not adults, at 70 to 80 percent, according to a 2010 Indiana University study on sexual behavior.

Twice, the president has limited birth control access at a time when other countries, both developed and underdeveloped, are expanding access. The U.S. should be leading that effort, as one of the most developed nations in the world, led by a Democratic president, who still has political capital early in his second term in office.

Countries such as the U.K., Spain and France have had superior birth control coverage for many years. Birth control in the U.K. is available for free under the National Health Service and Spain provides family planning services as part of the Spanish National Health Care system. In France, the National Assembly recently passed a bill as part of the Social Security budget that would allow young women aged 15 to 18 to access free birth control as well as cover the entire cost of an abortion for all women.

Even the Philippines, which has a historically religious and conservative culture that dissuades recreational sex, has made great strides in access to birth control. In December, the Philippine Congress passed a bill that would override the ban on contraceptives in public health clinics, make sex education mandatory and require hospitals to provide post-abortion care. The Catholic Church fiercely opposed the bill.

Kristine Relojo, a 21 year-old Filipino sophomore law student, said she has observed that many Filipino women have a lack of awareness of birth control methods, keeping them impoverished. The culture has also held them back from making informed family planning decisions.

“This could also change the stereotype of Filipino women as 'ilaw ng tahanan,' literally ‘light of the home,’ will no longer be,” Relojo said. “The reproductive health law is a huge deal because it’s kind of a formal recognition and institutionalization of the equality of men and women.”

If a country as steeped in religious tradition as the Philippines can produce a decisive victory for reproductive rights, and stand up to the Catholic Church, there is no reason why the United States, a developed country with a larger female workforce, can’t accomplish universal birth control without age restrictions.

In Judge Edward Korman’s opinion, he wrote that the restrictions were “…arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.” A restriction that flies in the face of the health community’s general consensus, basic national statistics and global social trends is the very opposite of “common sense.” Hopefully the president will come to this realization soon.