Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sundays are awesome because...

Because PostSecret puts new secrets up at 12:01am. If you don't know about PostSecret, it's a community art project in which people put their secrets on a postcard, and mail those postcards to a PO box; the site's originator puts the best ones up online every Sunday. Some of the secrets are touching, some of them are funny, and some of them are downright depressing and disturbing. All of them, as per the policy of the site, are meant to be true.
Here are a few relevant ones from last week - you can click on any of them to enlarge them and read the small fonts.

Women Are Not Sausages

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

"The older I become, the more I exercise and the less I eat. And yet, the fatter I am," writes Michelle Slatella in an article entitled "I Can't Outrun My Weight Issues" in the November 12th issue of The New York Times. Slatella then proceeds to treat us to a jolly description of her ramped-up workout routines, as well as the combinations of fat-concealing undergarments that she has tried, with less and less success. My favorite was the "Slim Cognito Body Shaping Cami" (if James Bond wore a body shaping cami, it would be this one!), which the author finally conceded was not working.

"Before I knew it, I was wrapped so tightly that one night at dinner I warned my husband, 'If I pass out, call the ambulance and make sure they bring the Jaws of Life.'

'I’ll bet they can cut you out of that stuff in no time,' he said encouragingly.

'But stand back,' I warned. 'When the cami goes, it could take your eye out.'"

This could have been the article's turning point. It's a fairly universal story: young women fear the moment when their magical metabolism, which allows them to maintain the weight that society requires by only cutting out 500 calories a day and indulging in an hour of strenuous aerobic exercise (my women's studies professor lovingly refers to elliptical machines as "ovulators"), will go, and they will become chubby monsters, fighting an uphill battle against - God forbid - age. But Slatella instead succumbs to one of the most pernicious aspects of our beauty culture, buying completely into the notion that women's bodies, as they age, become ugly and unnatural. She is not happy about the amount of work that she needs to do to keep her body looking youthful.

"Great. I hate that stuff," she writes. "But I can see this is one of those situations — like when you’re in the late stages of labor and the delivery nurses start yelling “push, push” at a time when you’d really prefer not to — when you can’t ignore the problem until it goes away."

Comparing middle-aged weight loss to childbirth? Really? Why does our society hate women's bodies so much that when something like metabolism change, that we cannot help, that is completely natural, occurs, we consign women to forty years of exponentially increasing self-loathing and disgust? We gain weight as we get older, men and women. It's normal. We need to accept it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to stay healthy as we age, but we can't exercise to the point of obsession or collapse, or worse, stuff ourselves into absurd, constricting undergarments (and really, this is different from the corset how?). Slatella's flippant tone is equally disturbing. We criticize Islamic countries for controlling women's bodies with the burqa, but our society is just as blatant - we have no call to be self-righteous when articles like this are being published in the New York Times. We can't outrun our bodies. And we shouldn't try.

"Yes, that's exactly how a woman looks"

By Chloe Angyal

Kate Winslet is on the cover of Vanity Fair this week, and the big news is that Winslet, having discovered that the rug on which she posed nude was not fake fur but real fur, has demanded an apology from the magazine. But she’s also angered by suggestions that the photos were photoshopped to make her look younger and thinner than she really is. Winslet's reps claim that she's just in really good shape, and that no photoshopping was necessary to make her look like this.

I’m going to have to quote the aptly named blog The Superficial, a site I love to hate (come on, we all have them). The Superficial writer, who seems incapable of writing about anything but breasts and how annoying the cast of The Hills is (I hear you on that one), left me pleasantly surprised this week:

Okay, seriously, who is looking at these pics and thinking: "Yes, that's exactly how a woman looks." (Not counting World of Warcraft fanatics, and everyone who beats me at Halo.) So, c'mon, Kate Winslet, cut the crap. The freaking T-Rex from Jurassic Park looked more realistic.


Men also hate their bodies. Awesome.

By Chloe Angyal

A psychologist at Flinders University in Australia has released the findings of her study on male body image and - surprise, surprise - like women, men experience insecurity and dissatisfaction with their bodies as a result of exposure to the media's narrow depictions of male beauty. Topping the list of concerns were penis size (duh), shoulder hair, hair loss and "excess" fat.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

"Clearly it is not a small sub-group of pathologically narcissistic men who experience dissatisfaction with these body parts, but a substantial proportion," said Professor Tiggemann, whose study of 200 young heterosexual men found two-thirds wished they had less back or buttock hair and a bigger penis, while 82 per cent wished they were more muscular.

It had become so common for men to worry about their biceps, pectorals and six-pack that such concerns could now be considered normal - just as virtually all women worried about their weight, Professor Tiggemann said. But like women who risk eating disorders from extreme dieting, men's muscle concerns could also lead to serious health problems, such as steroid abuse or injury.

So men are affected by this crap, too. Ugh, this is not the kind of gender equality I was hoping for.

When asked what might have caused this widespread increase in poor body image in men, and the recent "arrival of men's salons and skin products and a reported increase in men undergoing cosmetic surgery," Professor Tiggemann said, and this in turn might be attributable to social change. In the past, she said, it could have been that appearance "didn't matter very much because what mattered was the amount of money you made, the job you had … Some of this is a function of the male role being less clear." A beefy body might be "a way of asserting [masculinity] again".

Dammit, Women's Movement! Must you ruin everything?

The GOP's woman problem

By Chris Moses

Sarah Palin has a tortured, dependency-based relationship with the media. From the earliest days of her Vice-Presidential candidacy to the flirtatious energy of 2012 projections, this mean and nasty group of “gotcha” journalists has been her lifeline to popular political fame.

Nothing else could have transformed someone so insubstantial into such a national celebrity – there is a particularly American marvel to so much being said about so little. Palin might not like the script that propelled her to prominence, but without the press there would be no stage to seize in her current play of revenge-based co-option.

Yet the dalliance of Palin-plus-press publicity goes far deeper. In much less frequently observed ways, the insatiable speculation about clothes and competency obscures an unspoken and conundrum-producing right-wing vision of women’s subservient social and economic roles. At the same time it also reveals Palin’s – and the Republicans’ – biggest hurdle for future success.

More than a class problem, a race problem or a youth problem, the GOP has a woman problem. Sarah Palin demonstrated this most eloquently–and backwardly–with her endless mouthing of the McCain campaign’s image of “Joe the Plumber,” not to mention her affinity for “Joe Sixpack.”

In terms of both economic growth and voter turn-out, the real praise should have been of Miss Joe the Plumber: the female entrepreneur and small business owner who has been a driving force in economic growth in the United States and around the world. While Mr. Joe has indeed gone missing—especially in mechanical and manufacturing work—a new generation of misses has proved innovative, reliant and savvy as America’s economy has changed profoundly in the past decades.

Instead of going to hockey, the biggest shout-out of the campaign should have gone to e-Bay moms, and the ladies who now lunch for profit.

Mr. Joe’s dwindling economic success relative to the misses’ growing prominence has a strong parallel in deep changes effecting U.S. voter participation. Notable for high-fashioned winks and nods to the guys, Palin would have been far better off in a photo-op with sleeves rolled up, at work in a woman’s start-up.

Female voting has eclipsed male turn-out since 1980 and the gap only grows with each election. The swing has been staggering in the last forty years: in 1964, men held a nearly five-point advantage in terms of percentage of votes cast. In 2004, the percentage of women voting outpaced men by almost four points.

And these women vote Democratic by significant margins: since a near tie in 1988, the majority of women have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate.

This year, women’s participation in state politics translated directly into a state-winning strategy for Barack Obama. A quick glance at the Center for American Women and Politics' map that ranks state legislatures by the proportion of female office holders reveals a striking parallel to Presidential proclivities. Blue gains in 2008, like North Carolina, Colorado and New Mexico score strongly by this measure, and returns that challenged long-held Republican dominance in Montana and Arizona follow the trend as well.

The biggest battleground states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia—have three of the ten least gender-representative legislatures in the country. All but one of the top ten, and only three of the top twenty, voted for McCain in 2008.

Palin may also have shot wide of the mark with her incessant repetition of the oddly baseless assertion—again pulled from Joe’s thoughts—that Obama would bring “socialism” to the United States. All essentialism aside, women leaders have often been cited as having more collaborative and team-work oriented management styles. While this is obviously a complex story, there’s potential in the idea of successful women imagining an alternative to the competition-for-competition’s sake model that sustained many of the structural inequalities faced in the course of their own careers.

Still, I’m struck by the most recent World Economic Forum’s index of gender equality by country. The top three—Norway, Finland and Sweden—are some of the strongest socialist-like states in the world. No cultural determinism should define how either men or women must act to achieve equality, though a culture determined to provide equitable access to basic resources like healthcare and family support services appears to lay a strong foundation for gender parity.

Beyond the numbers, Palin’s attempt to be the woman of the right fell flat because she could only eve be the exception that proved the rule of how “traditional” women ought to live their lives. However macho, however much her family persevered in her absence, an absence that disturbed the sacred structure of a heterosexual, two-parent household, Palin could be a maverick, but never a model within the life-circumscribing roles that groups like Christian fundamentalists proscribe for women.

There’s a difference between having success in a given culture and working to promote a culture of success for women. For Sarah Palin, the most pressing question of 2012 will be: Miss Joe the Plumber?

Friday, November 14, 2008

UNFPA's annual report describes global gender inequality

By Chloe Angyal

UNFPA, The United Nations Population Fund, has just released Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, its report on the state of the world population (and you thought writing a JP involved extensive research).

Here are some fascinating and disturbing excerpts from the chapter on Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women:

Deep-rooted cultural beliefs sustain gender inequality. In Latin America, for example, feminist movements against domestic violence have found that cultural traditions that support patriarchal violence are among the major impediments to change.
French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies followed the Code Napoleon, under which the father or husband had total power over the family and could treat them as he saw fit.

The tradition continued essentially unchallenged after independence and until recent times, as the struggle to enforce the Maria da Penha law in Brazil illustrates.
Gender-based violence “is perpetuated through social and cultural norms and traditions, reinforcing male-dominated power structures”.(11)

From early infancy, women are taught “that they are inferior to men and often to blame for the violence inflicted upon them. As wives or partners, they must hold the family together, at any cost. Women and men both learn to turn a blind eye to, or accept, gender-based violence”. Under these circumstances, domestic violence becomes “naturalized” and invisible.

Reports from Uganda demonstrate the ways in which cultures sustain unequal gender relations. Many men were adamant that their women are not supposed to have money: “After selling the maize, the husband may buy a dress or lesu for the wife. If women are allowed to own property, they will be on top of men.” Women themselves provided a number of examples of the problems that occur when they were “allowed” to own property, particularly the difficulty of “sustaining a husband and economic independence; one has to be foregone”.

While beliefs may be changing among younger women, some older women retain and try to enforce them
. In one area, the Uganda study found, women are forbidden from entering the lake. One younger woman asserted that there was nothing wrong with swimming in the lake.

However, the older women objected. Women, they said, “should not go to the lake at all because they are always dirty”. The “god” who was responsible for the site dictated this. Since the young women had failed to observe this instruction, the “god” would no longer bless the site.

Reports also show that domestic violence is widespread. “Husbands turn to battling their wives even on minor issues like failure to work hard in the garden or when his clothes are not washed (even if soap was not there).” It was reported that frustrated men were “beating their wives almost to death”.

American culture is not without its inequalities, and our government's policies are not without their deficiencies when it comes to gender, but parts of this report made me feel damn lucky to live here.

"Look, dude! Lesbians!"

By Elizabeth Winkler

Why do (most) guys drool over the sight of two women making out, while girls remain completely indifferent to the same sight in men? Straight women don’t watch lesbian sex, gay men don’t watch straight (or lesbian) sex, lesbians don’t watch straight sex: what is it about ‘lesbians’ – real or performative – that captivates male sexual fantasy, and what are the implications of such a captivation?

Most immediately, it seems that the pleasure men derive from watching lesbians emphasizes the extent to which women generally are rendered the object of the male gaze. The objectified woman functions as the site of male entertainment, and the otherness of lesbian sexuality to the realm of the real (heterosexuality) only makes the staged-ness of female sexuality more explicit. The fantastic show provided by the gawked-at lesbians can thus be said to simply serve as a heightened instance of the theatrical lens through which women are all too often viewed.

But there is also something notably voyeuristic in this particular instance of the male gaze, whether the men are watching lesbians from across the eating club or on their favorite porn website. Admittedly, porn by its nature is voyeuristic, but the voyeurism of lesbian sex is entirely distinct from whatever voyeurism laces the viewing of heterosexual porn: unlike heterosexual sex, lesbian sex is an act in which a man can never engage; it is this precise element – his displacement from the act – that defines lesbian sexual activity, seemingly rendering male displacement the root of his fascination and pleasure. Because he cannot take part in it, he watches it, and in watching it transforms it into an act that no longer exists for the women’s pleasure but for his own. (Think, for instance, how often straight women make-out just to please male on-lookers.)

Arguably, of course, a man can engage in lesbian sex: this would be when it becomes a ‘three-some.’ But again, this form of sexual activity only serves to underscore female inferiority to male sexual pleasure. 1) 3-ways are almost exclusively constituted as 2 women, 1 man; rarely, 2 men, 1 woman, and when that is the case, one must go out of the way to explain to it as such – an exception to the rule. 2) When a man engages in sex with two women, there is no sense of reciprocity in the relationship but instead a master-servant dynamic: the women – especially as depicted in porn – become his sex slaves.

Finally, the male desire to watch lesbian sex subverts the potential subversion of heterosexuality that is female homosexuality; the power these women wield in renouncing sexual desire for men is re-appropriated by men when they claim pleasure in viewing such an act. On some subliminal level, can this in part account for their need to claim pleasure in viewing lesbians? Can the fact that lesbian sex is transformed into their source of pleasure (rather than the lesbians’) be understood as the male attempt to not be excluded from this form of sexual activity?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hero of the week: Dan Savage

A huge shout-out to writer and gay rights activist Dan Savage, who, in the aftermath of the passage of Prop 8 and numerous other anti-gay rights ballot measures last week, has been on a media blitz. On Tuesday, Savage talked to Steven Colbert (and gave the man a run for is money in the funny stakes), and two days ago he had an op-ed in the New York Times that made a very strong case against Arkansas' new measure, which will forbid gay couples to adopt.
His column points out the contradiction of the "pro-family" stance, as well as suggesting unsettling implications for those same-sex couples who have already adopted:

"But good times or bad, no movement that would turn away qualified parents and condemn children to a broken foster care system should be considered 'pro-family.'

Most ominous, once “pro-family” groups start arguing that gay couples are unfit to raise children we might adopt, how long before they argue that we’re unfit to raise those we’ve already adopted? If lesbian couples are unfit to care for foster children, are they fit to care for their own biological children?"

I have enormous respect for Mr. Savage. He's been adamant and passionate, yet incredibly composed and well-spoken, in the face of legislation that must be breaking his heart (and the hearts of his husband and adopted son). Huge props to Dan Savage, our hero of the week.

Home Births: a New Option?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

My latest crazy plan for the summer has been in place ever since I saw The Business of Being Born, a documentary referenced in a recent New York Times article about the rise in home births. More and more women, it seems, are opting to give birth in the comfort of their houses, in the presence of midwives and doulas rather than doctors. And no, my plan is not to give birth to a child at home, but rather to train to become a birth doula, a person who is present at a birth but is secondary to the midwife, someone who is trained and experienced in childbirth and who provides continuous physical and emotional support to the mother before, during and after childbirth.

Why this rash decision? And why the rise in home births? After all, both the AMA and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend hospitals as the safest options for birth. But growing numbers of women have chosen their homes as the sites of childbirth, and instead of medical doctors, they have gone to midwives and doulas, who have traditionally been excluded and ostracized by the mainstream medical profession. The film, and many midwives, argue that in fact, hospitals are not the best, safest, or most comfortable place to give birth. The lack of drugs is just one of the factors that is driving many women out of the maternity ward. Doctors, midwives are quick to point out, are not ideal candidates for delivering babies. Their training does not focus on birth, and they don't have the same relationship with the mothers that midwives would. Furthermore, they have proved themselves to be dangerously willing to perform cesarean sections, even though these are often not necessary (at suspicious times...the numbers of cesareans performed in hospitals spikes around 4 pm and 10 pm). Cesarean sections are major surgery. The estimated risk of a woman dying after a cesarean birth are less than one in 2,500 (as opposed to one in 10,000 for a vaginal birth).

The claims that home births are dangerous are also, for the most part, false. In fact, for a country where most childbirths occur in hospitals, we have much higher infant mortality rates than countries where home birth is more common. Marsden Wagner, the European Director of the WHO, suggested the need in the U.S. for a "strong independent midwifery profession as a counterbalance to the obstetrical profession in preventing excessive interventions in the normal birth process."

What does he mean by this? We need to get back to natural birth. Mothers, during their pregnancy, are frightened by the concept of birth (as are many women) and when they enter the delivery room, they are given a series of drugs that speed up their contractions and reduce the subsequent pain, but numb their consciousness. The birth of a child is something that women have the right to experience, if they so choose. Doctors are much more likely to pressure women into having surgery, or taking drugs, because it makes the process easier for them. Birth is a painful process. But it is not a medical emergency. If complications do occur during childbirth, mothers are sent to the hospital; many have doctors standing by.

I want to be a doula because I think that many women do not understand the power and joy of childbirth, and because birth in this country is entirely focused on the baby, and not the mother. The mother has an equal stake in bringing the child into the world, and she deserves to have the option of consciousness and comfort, rather than giving birth in a room full of machines, pumped full of drugs.

Stephen Colbert on "women's health"

From last night's Colbert Report:

Stephen Colbert presents "Gynomorph, the hormone that gradually turns you into a dude. Which is good, because when men take hormones, it just makes them better at baseball."

Auditions for The Vagina Monologues!

Yes, it's that time of the year again! Auditions for The Vagina Monologues are this weekend, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sign-up sheets are in Theatre Intime. This is one of the best opportunities to involve yourself in a creative and feminist pursuit. All campus women are encouraged to audition. The show already involves two EW writers, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux (director) and Peale Iglehart (publicity).


Australia's very own Palin

By Chloe Angyal

Julia Gillard is Australia's very own Sarah Palin. Except that she's good at her job. And her ticket won. And really, the only thing she has in common with Palin is biology. But she's a woman in power, so let's back her! I'm just kidding of course - as Palin so deftly demonstrated, a uterus does not automatically make a person good leader for women (or for people), and certainly doesn't automatically represent progress for women.

But Julia Gillard, Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, apparently kicked ass this week in the absence of PM Kevin Rudd - she's acting Prime Minister while he's out of town. I'm a fan of Gillard because she's a very accomplished woman, and because she's successfully and calmly led her party through some pretty tough political times.

As Sydney Morning Herald columnist Annabel Crabb notes today, "there really isn't any doubt any more about whether Gillard has the killer instinct. The problem tends more to be how to drag her off the victim's body."

It's always exciting to hear about women in positions of power, but it's clear that they make people so very uncomfortable. Culturally speaking, leadership requires a "killer instinct," but a killer instinct is considered unladylike. Therefore, it's impossible to simultaneously be a good leader and a "good woman." And you hear a trace of this double bind in Crabb's column.

That said, I have a bit of a crush on Ms. Gillard.

I call bullshit

By Franki Butler

Last Tuesday night was a historic presidential election, and I’m thrilled with the results, I really am (no, seriously, I was fighting the urge to have a one-woman dance party on my way to class Wednesday). However, my joy is marred by the results of several ballot measures, including the sweep of gay marriage bans in Arizona, Florida, and California. My feelings on these heinous acts of bigotry cannot be expressed in language appropriate for this blog, so I’ll point you to a much more eloquent post by Thomas of Feministe, and turn instead to another disappointing election result: the passing of Arkansas Act 1.

Arkansas Act 1 bans unmarried couples from adopting children. It’s really just a ploy to keep gay couples from adopting children, because obviously someone in a homosexual union shouldn’t be able to start a family; that would be too close to equality. The measure also keeps straight, unmarried couples from adopting, but was targeted specifically against gay couples. Let’s examine this for a moment.

The people of Arkansas thought a measure to keep gay couples from adopting was a good idea. Really, guys? The state of Arkansas had over 7,193 children in foster care in the fiscal year 2007 and hoped to remove 930 of them from the system through adoption; of those, 357 were actually placed in adoptive homes. For those of you who aren’t mathematically inclined, that’s 573 children still in the system, waiting for parents. And the good citizens of Arkansas just decided that they’d rather keep those children in foster care than live in a home with gay parents. Now, a gay parent is fine; the law only discriminates against those co-habitating with sexual partners to whom they are not married. Of course, in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, that gives one the choice of living with his/her partner, or adopting a child.

The state is basically telling its LGB citizens what kinds of families they’re allowed to have. This is not okay. This is not a fair treatment of citizens. This is a state keeping children from being placed in good homes because of some warped idea that good “family values” come only from happily married heterosexual couples. This is, quite simply, bullshit.

Read the Arkansas DHS Annual Report in its entirety here.

Tonight: Shere Khan archsing honoring Womanspace

Tonight at 11pm, Shere Khan is singing in 1879 Arch to raise money for Womanspace.

Womanspace, Inc. is a leading nonprofit agency in Mercer County, New Jersey that provides comprehensive services to individuals and families impacted by domestic and sexual violence. Programs include crisis intervention, emergency shelter, counseling, court advocacy and housing services.

Domestic violence and sexual assault are not just women’s issues, and they are not just individual or family problems. Violence against women is a human issue, and a social problem. It’s up to the community to take a stand against abuse, hold abusers accountable for their behavior and protect victims.

It'll be great music for a great cause, so don't miss it. See you there.
If you can't make it tonight but would still like to donate to Womanspace, you can do that here.

Of beer and bikinis

By Angie D

There is nothing better than downing a cold brewski on the beach… except realizing that your beer is actually a remote control for a woman in a thong bikini. The suggestion that beer allows men to exert control over women is explicit in this ad, but the reason is unclear.

In fact, the marketing relationship between beer and bikinis (and more generally, between beer and scantily clad women) has been a long and successful one, but can anyone really explain why? The notion that sex sells is oversimplified. Consider this ad for Moosehead Light Beer.

Apparently, not all sex sells. Moosehead would have us believe that homoerotic contact is only attractive when it’s between women – preferably in bikinis. In fact, it is in women’s nature to be sexy and it is in men’s nature to watch women being sexy. While drinking a beer, of course.

Miller also teaches us something useful: sex doesn’t sell to everybody. Who could forget the classic “Great Taste vs. Less Filling” debate. Miller almost achieves irony with this commercial: the men creating the fantasy ad are dreaming of women who don’t actually exist, and they are doing so at the cost of alienating the women they are actually with. The beer produces delusions of sexual grandeur and the delusions leave these men void of the female companionship (or, at least, the displays of female promiscuity) promised them by beer commercials in the first place. Yet this ad was immensely popular… Did the nearly-naked wrestling somehow distract viewers from the underlying message that beer commercials objectify women and make unreasonable promises? Hmm, tough one.

Kudos to HBO’s short lived series, Hardcore TV, which finally explicitly portrayed the absurdity of linking beer to sexual conquest (warning: there is a flash of nude breasts in this one). If it is widely acknowledged that these beer commercials are simply over the top and unrepresentative of viewers’ real outcomes when drinking beer – as this skit suggests, why does the advertising relationship between beer and bikinis persist? And why is the subtext of misogyny so tacitly accepted when it’s wrapped in a sales pitch for alcohol? A warning: you may not be prepared for the way this one ends.

Something to think about next time you uncap a cold one.

Just for fun

From the very funny McSweeney's Lists:

Broadway Musicals Written by Gender Studies Professors
By Sascha Cohen

Annie Get Your Symbol of Violent, Colonizing Western Masculinity
Hello, Doula!
How to Succeed in Unpaid, Undervalued Domestic Labor Without Really Trying
The Best Little Female-Operated Sex-Worker Co-op in Texas
Bye Bye Burqa
Joseph and the Amazing Heterosexist Dreamcoat of Male Privilege
Jesus Christ Oppressive Religious Figure
Lys Mys

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Obama administration and family planning

Mary Jane Gallagher, President and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, has an interesting piece up today at RH Reality Check; it's an election round-up, and some words about the incoming Obama administration and its anticipated family planning policies:

"Last Tuesday we finally got what we've all been waiting for: a fundamental shift in the way the United States looks at family planning. The election confirms what Americans have known for years -- that family planning services are essential to our well-being. We are happy to be working with the Obama transition team to knock down the barriers that have for too long blocked families from exercising their reproductive rights. The American voters sent a clear message; it is time to move past the Bush administration's ideological anti-family planning policies to pragmatic solutions. Now we have the government to do it....

... For family planning providers and advocates around the country, Obama's election represents an enormous victory, and we are hopeful that the coming days and years will provide numerous opportunities to work with the new administration to increase access to family planning services for low-income and uninsured women and men..."

Beyond parody: the FlirtyGirl Fitness chair dance workout

By Chloe Angyal

I just snorted red wine out my nose.

FlirtyGirl Fitness, a new "workout system" that offers you the chance to "learn some of the world's sexiest dance moves from videos, club dancing and even exotic dancing and turn them into fun, fat-burning routines that anyone can do" (seriously people, just go for a run) has a pole workout, which looks like it might actually build some muscle, but it also has the completely hilarious chair dance workout, which looks like it was made by Saturday Night Live as one of their fake TV ads.
Say what you will about pole dancing classes as a way to get fit and "unlock your inner diva," as the FlirtyGirl Fitness website puts it, but this is just absurd.

Incidentally, this is what Jessica Valenti at had to say:

"What seemed to appeal was an all-female environment where they could act out "sexiness" and "femininity" in a safe space. (I use scare quotes because of the limiting versions of femininity and sexiness that I think pole dancing and such things offer.)But the sexuality offered in classes like these seems to me - I've never been to one, so correct me if I'm wrong - so put on and so based on the male gaze. After all, many of the women interviewed in this article and others talk about bringing the workout back home for their significant male others."

I'm with Jessica on this one. Also, red wine hurts the nostrils.

Olbermann on Prop 8

By popular demand, here is Keith Olbermann's "Special Comment" on the passage of California's Prop 8.
I don't usually have a lot of patience for Olbermann and his rants, but this is really something else:

"In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want—a chance to be a little less alone in the world...

...And uncountable in our history are the number of men and women, forced by society into marrying the opposite sex, in sham marriages, or marriages of convenience, or just marriages of not knowing, centuries of men and women who have lived their lives in shame and unhappiness, and who have, through a lie to themselves or others, broken countless other lives, of spouses and children, all because we said a man couldn't marry another man, or a woman couldn't marry another woman. The sanctity of marriage.

How many marriages like that have there been and how on earth do they increase the "sanctity" of marriage rather than render the term, meaningless?

What is this, to you? Nobody is asking you to embrace their expression of love. But don't you, as human beings, have to embrace that love? The world is barren enough."

Take seven minutes to watch it - it's very touching.

Does skinny sell?

By Chloe Angyal

Interesting article out of Australia today:

It is a central tenet of advertising that thin models sell more products. The only trouble is, it may not be true.

In the first empirical research into the question undertaken in Australia, health psychologists have found young people's response to an ad, and their willingness to consider buying what it promotes, is exactly the same whether the featured model is catwalk-slender or of a more average body shape.

The study marks the first time in Australia that psychologists have sought to measure objectively how people's response to models translates into buying behaviour, and follows last month's proposal by Kate Ellis, the federal Minister for Youth, of a code of conduct for magazines, requiring them to show models who were not abnormally thin and to disclose the use of digitally altered images.

I like this last idea the best. Imagine how much progress we could make towards loving our bodies as they are if we weren't constantly being told that, if we just worked hard enough, wanted it bad enough, and bought enough stuff, we could look like the airbrushed and photo-shopped models we see in magazines.

And while this last bit seems kind of obvious to me, it's nice to have some empirical evidence to back it up:

When asked further questions designed to assess their own body satisfaction immediately after viewing the draft ads, the women completing the survey, who were aged 18 to 25, felt better about themselves if they had been shown the images of larger models, compared with those who saw the slim models.

That's because the average American woman is a size 10-12 (see photo below), and the average model is a size 0-2 (see photo above). And of course, never seeing yourself reflected in the mass media is going to make you feel like crap. So there's an argument for making people feel comfortable and accepted if you want to sell them a product (or, if you just want people to feel comfortable and accepted, which sounds like a pretty good idea to me).

Of course, fashion is aspirational - it's about selling a lifestyle, not just selling clothes - and you may sell more clothes by selling the idea of what someone could be (skinny and therefore "attractive," and worthwhile) rather than selling them something that reflects who actually are (not skinny by industry standards, no less attractive and definitely still worthwhile). And of course, if you convince someone that they're deficient (i.e. fat and therefore worthless), and that your product is the only thing that can fix their condition, you're going to make a profit. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, but you're going to make a profit.

And of course, some of the average American women who are size 10-12 are overweight, but many of them are simply sitting at their healthy, natural genetic set point and won't suffer any health consequences for being there. And there's something really sick about millions of women, many of whom can never healthily attain a size 0 or 2, spending hours every day and thousands of dollars every year trying to be something they'll never be.

It happens here

The author of this post chose to keep her name anonymous because she wants to place importance on the issue of sexual harassment rather than her own experience.

When I was a freshman, I was sexually harassed by one of my professors.

I should say right here and now that he never laid a hand on me. Rather, he made several comments about my appearance, and scheduled a private meeting in which he asked me to take an assignment in an explicitly sexual direction. Despite my hesitation, he was adamant in his request, and, when I failed to comply with his directions, he scheduled another meeting. In the second meeting the innuendo got so inappropriate that I made an excuse to leave early. While I never took a private meeting with him again, he pressured me for the rest of the semester about the assignment, and –I believe—docked my grade because I never could bring myself to do what he had asked of me.

Now, my impulse is always to follow that story with an assurance that it sounds worse than it actually was, but I’m not so sure. In the past I have downplayed the scenario’s gravity because, while I felt acutely uncomfortable, I never felt traumatized, or even violated. My reaction more closely resembled annoyance: with an astonishingly casual disgust, I wrote him off as a creep and an asshole and never looked back. Perhaps this was because I was too distracted by the adjustment to college life to fully process the experience. Perhaps it was because I had been sexually harassed before—and by someone who did not respect physical boundaries. Certainly I was in denial that any professor would do what I suspected mine was doing. For whatever reason, I viewed the incident for a long time as “crappy, but not a big deal.”

Over the years that have followed, my attitude has changed, and not because some emotional or psychological effect eventually took hold. Being sexually harassed is a big deal no matter how it happens or how the victim reacts. It is a huge injustice and a huge breach of trust. Particularly when the harasser is a professor or another authority figure, the victim struggles with feelings of powerlessness and betrayal. It is a violation, and a wrong that no student, of any age, or any gender, should ever have to suffer.

This is not an issue that gets talked about at Princeton, which makes me both frustrated and irrationally hopeful. I hope against hope that what happened to me was an isolated incident, and that the lack of dialogue at Princeton about sexual harassment means that no one else shares my experience. I am frustrated because, even if being harassed by a professor is a true aberration, I have witnessed sexual harassment between students and there just isn’t enough conversation about this problem. Students at Princeton hear a lot from the administration about assault, but not about harassment. Students talk a lot about rape but almost never about harassment. This is a problem. It’s time members of the Princeton community treated it as such.

While I’m not interested in becoming the poster child for this issue, I do want to reassure other students who may have had this experience that they are not alone. I also want to encourage anyone facing a similar scenario to act with a courage and a presence of mind that I did not. With all injustice, change comes when individuals bring it into the light, talk about it, challenge it. In some ways, I wish I had done more as a freshman to fight the “crappy” situation I found myself in. I can only hope that my story inspires conversation among Princetonians about the existence of sexual harassment in our community, and incites anyone who is facing or has ever faced sexual harassment to challenge it, to fight back.

Note: the professor in question is no longer teaching at Princeton, for reasons unrelated to the incident, which happened in 2005.

If you are currently dealing with sexual harassment, or are a survivor of sexual harassment, and need help, contact the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education Office at (609) 258 3310

"But you're not a feminist"

By Angie D

As our readers may or may not know, twice a week contributors to Equal Writes don t-shirts with the words “this is what a feminist looks like” printed across them. This act serves at once to promote awareness for a cause we believe in and to encourage others to confront stereotypes they may hold regarding who or what a feminist is.

But, in addition to promoting awareness and encouraging reflection, putting on my “feminist t-shirt” has resulted in some unexpected learning for me. My friends’ reactions to my apparel revealed that feminism, as a part of my identity, was both threatening and menacing. Many of them questioned:

- You’re not really a feminist, are you?

When I responded that, in fact, I was, people did not hesitate to voice their surprise and even their disapproval. Apparently my behavior was inconsistent with their notion of appropriate feminist comportment:

- But you don’t hate men.
- I don’t think feminism is about hating men. It’s about recognizing the equality of the sexes and manifesting that in our laws, our culture, our social interactions…
- Right, but you’re not going to get all whiny and complain about it, right?

Believe it or not, this was my interaction with a female friend. Well, my friend, as long as you remain complicit in your own inequality (through your silence and scorn for feminism) yes, I will continue to be the squeaky wheel.

Another friend was equally taken aback, not by my ideological stance, rather by my public identification as a feminist:

- It’s not that I don’t agree with Equal Writes. It’s just that I’m surprised you call yourself a feminist.

While this statement may seem counter-intuitive, it gives voice to a legitimate concern. The feminist label is so loaded that it sometimes feels more like a burden than a liberating stance. Other comments I received confirmed this notion that calling one’s self a feminist can make one a target; it means inviting challenges and confrontation – even if they are couched as humor:

- If that’s supposed to be a feminist shirt, why is their writing across your chest? You’re just drawing people’s attention to your breasts.
- The writing is above my breasts, not on them.
- Ok, but it’s on your cleavage.
- The shirt doesn’t show any cleavage.

- Yeah, but we all know its there. Under the writing. We’ve seen it before.
- …?

I had trouble responding to this one. As a feminist, I do not consider it my duty to deter attention from my feminine features. But I do consider their commodification unacceptable. I’d like to think that I can put whatever I want on my body – cover or reveal as much as I’d like – and continue to receive the respect due to me and my body. But I find it difficult to publicly distinguish between my choice to present myself as I see fit (as modestly or provocatively as I choose) and what may be misconstrued as succumbing to cultural and commercial demands to be subdued or sexy, to treat my body as a commodity – part of the total package that I am “selling.” Perhaps if I continue to wear my “feminist t-shirt,” I will be able to set the record straight. If not, it’s certainly a heck of an interesting conversation starter.

O say can you see... the mixed messages?

By Peale Iglehart

It’s true. Reading O is one my guilty pleasures. I savor Dr. Phil’s advice. I pore over “The O List” (Oprah’s list of must-haves for the month). I read O because sometimes there are hilarious questions posed for the beauty expert (“I’ve developed a hideous bunion. Is surgery my only option?”). Sometimes there are intriguing conundrums in the advice column (“Should I set up a nanny-cam?”). Occasionally there are touching, beautifully-written articles. Sometimes there are just plain ridiculous articles and ads. Always there is contradiction.

Oprah Inc. packages itself as a woman’s therapist, personal shopper, and best friend all in one. The subtitle of the magazine literally states: “Live Your Best Life.” This makes O magazine sound like a woman’s ticket to happiness. The October 2008 cover promises “The Happiness Plan: Latest research on finding joy.” The November 2008 cover vows to deliver “22 simple, surprising, brilliant rules to live by.” Ladies, “You don’t have to be thin to be gorgeous”—the October 2008 issue shows you “the knockout clothes that prove it.” In other words, the covers assure, O will lead you to fulfillment and feeling good. Live by these rules, follow this plan, buy this stationery and that skirt. It’s simple! You’ll never want again! O will show you the way to feeling good about yourself. (If all else fails, eat more walnuts. O is fond of dispensing this advice.)

But of course O’s motive is not so simple. O holds up self-love as an ultimate goal, but page after page of advertisements and articles are designed in fact to undermine women’s confidence in themselves and to make them think they need all kinds of gadgets—from a certain shade of eye shadow to (literally) an $80 plastic bag sealer—in order to live that better life. (Just to clarify: obviously this hypocrisy does not come as a surprise. We see it in all kinds of magazines, from Cosmopolitan to Real Simple and the list goes on. I am just focusing on the mixed messages in O.)

O confirms the status quo rather than undermining it. For instance, in the October 2008 issue (page 66, if you’ve been hoarding the issues too), we see the headline: “Housewife Saves the World!: At last, a movie that portrays women’s work as a heroic calling.” It’s a review of the movie Blindness, with Julianne Moore. I skipped over the plot to the last few sentences of the blurb: “Blindness conjures a world where an ordinary gal has a uniquely menial kind of greatness thrust upon her, where the drudgery of mopping and laundering is a noble calling and procuring groceries is a do-or-die blood sport—a test of leadership, in fact. Who would have thought it: women’s work as the stuff of movie heroism.” Cringe. Granted, some women (some men, too) like house work. (Vacuuming and Fantastik-ing are cathartic for me in times of stress.) But there’s something unsettling about the cheerfulness of this movie review (I don’t think it’s meant in a tongue-in-cheek way), particularly when it’s juxtaposed with page after page of ads for cleaning products, beauty products, and low-fat snacks.

Then there are articles like “The Tipping Point,” an October 2008 feature about Botox that poses the question: “What is it that finally pushes a woman into doing something about her anxious little frown lines, her mousy hair, or whatever she’s (more or less) ‘accepted’ about her looks? Three women step up to O’S BEAUTY CHALLENGE and discover what they can and can’t live with.” (Maybe you hadn’t thought about this before, ladies, but those “anxious little frown lines”? Yeah…those should be a source of anguish if they aren’t already. )

In August 2008, The New York Times ran a story on a woman who literally lived for an entire year of her life following Oprah’s advice word for word: what car to buy, what to wear on a date, which movies to watch, how to de-clutter your house, etc. The woman, Robin Okrant, said, “Oprah’s like the popular girl in high school who knows how to emotionally blackmail us…The way she’ll deliver advice is, ‘This will make you happy, unless you don’t have enough self-esteem to do it.’ ” She described Oprah’s empire as providing “the illusion of free choice, but it’s actually an absence of choice. When I’m told that it’s my fault that something’s not working, it’s a little bit of a blow.”

Exactly. O claims to be improving women’s lives—to make them simpler, less stressful, happier. But really O just gives women more reasons to feel less happy, more dissatisfied—and thus more inclined to buy that pink mixing bowl and that calcium-fortified chewing gum.

So wake up, Robin Okrants of the world! Recognize Oprah’s sabotage for what it is! You have nothing to lose but your source on the latest and priciest anti-cellulite cream! Is it that simple? I, for one, don’t think so. And neither, apparently, does Robin Okrant. Despite her misgivings about following Oprah’s every command, Okrant says: “It takes a huge amount of pressure off to be handed a spiritual path….I’m kind of embarrassed to admit, but I can understand why people want it to be that way.” A spiritual path?! Is this what Oprah has tricked her readers into thinking she is providing? Maybe… Maybe not. Oprah is definitely providing something…but what? It’s more than just a list of what to buy and how to dress—but less, most of us would agree, than “a spiritual path.”

And yet O fills some kind of need—for the Robin Okrants out there and for me and for all the motley readers in between. Okrant derives a sense of comfort from following Oprah’s advice to a tee; I derive a sense of comfort from (alternately) deriding and embracing the commandments of O. I think we could say the same about lots of controversial female figures, from Sarah Palin to Britney Spears to Lauren Conrad. We love them, we hate them, we deride them, we revere them. We feel mixed-up about them. We feel mixed-up about ourselves.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Surviving Princeton's inverse social ladder

By Angie D

I have always known that at Princeton there exists an inverse social ladder for men and women. Freshmen “boys” are chopped liver and freshmen “girls” are, well, fresh meat. I think I may have taken this for granted as a freshperson, but now as a senior – presumably no longer a girl but a woman, and therefore a has-been or a threat because I have opinions and self-esteem – I no longer take this social perversion in stride, but rather as a bitter (jagged, little) pill to swallow.

While I’m a little perturbed at the idea of 4 years having decreased my desirability fourfold, I think I’m beyond allowing others to value my assets. What really bothers me is how much senior women have bought into this idea. So here is my morning-mirror-affirmation for any female who’s ever been told “Wow, your life is consumed with trying to get a job and trying to get laid… And you’re not getting either!” (A special thanks goes out to a close male friend for trying to sum up my life as a quest for those two Holy Grails – cash and ass.)

Deep breath, here goes: While I know that I am as attractive as I was four years ago – probably more so, it is inconsequential, because I will not slide up and down some ladder as I enter college, the job market, the “real world” or any other construct that brackets the ages between which I am acceptably nubile or offensively beyond my expiration date.

Exhale. Doesn’t it feel good to knock down the ladder?

Now maybe if the freshman “boys” tilt their end of it, we can really start a revolution.


I don't know how I missed this, but two of my favourite people were on screen together on Thursday night: Rachel Maddow was a guest on The Colbert Report.


No Words

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

This has been a hopeful week for me. Barack Obama's election was thrilling because it promised a change from the devastating policies of the Bush administration, and renewed my faith in the ability of the American people to make an informed decision.

But news like this leaves me distressed beyond words.

The New York Times reported today:

The United Nations said Tuesday that a Somali stoned to death by Islamist militants after she had been accused of adultery was a 13-year-old girl who had been raped while visiting her grandmother.

In the first such public killing by the militants in about two years, she was placed in a hole and stoned to death on Oct. 28 in a rebel-held port city, Kismayu, in front of a crowd, after local leaders said she was guilty under Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Koran.

Witnesses said at the time that the victim had been a 23-year-old woman.

The girl was stoned to death by 50 men in a stadium, in front of a crowd of about 1000 spectators. None of the perpetrators have been arrested.

It's appalling that this girl, Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, was killed for a "crime" that she did not commit, that she was in fact stoned to death because her body had been violated. But why she was killed is not the point. This would be a devastating violation of human rights even if she had engaged in adulterous, consensual sex. Aisha's death is unspeakable because these men felt that, under Sharia law, they had the right to publicly take her life. Because under their interpretation of the law, women are not human.

This is why we need feminism.

Feminists for Life at Yale

By Chloe Angyal

The Yale Daily News reports today:

"At Yale Law School last Friday, the senior communications specialist for the Feminists for Life of America argued that resources for pregnant students and staff at universities need to be more available so they do not feel that abortion is the only option. While some students in the audience questioned whether, as Winn claimed, a true feminist could be pro-life, four of those interviewed said Winn presented a side of the abortion debate that they had not previously heard."

This bit kind of irks me, though:

"When asked how this viewpoint could coincide with feminism, she asserted that abortion is violent and that violence breaks the tenet of feminism."

Violence does break ONE of the tenets of feminism, but anti-violence is not THE central tenet of feminism. The central tenet of feminism is that women deserve the same rights, opportunities and access as men.
Just as men shouldn't be subjected to violence, nor should women. But the violence of an abortion is a voluntary one that a woman consents to endure, because she deserves to choose what happens to her body. If she doesn't choose to carry a pregnancy to term, and decides to terminate it in a violent manner (because there is no non-violent way to terminate a pregnancy), that is her choice, and is a very different kind of violence to, say, domestic violence, which is inflicted on a woman against her will.
To equate the violence of an abortion, which is willingly endured by a woman, with violence that is forced upon her, is to belittle women's intelligence, as though to suggest that a woman who decides to have an abortion doesn't understand how traumatic the experience will be. Women know how traumatic an abortion might be. And yet, they choose to do it anyway. Because women know what's best for them.

And, honestly, while I agree that there should be more support for pregnant students on college campuses, I think that if Feminists for Life really cared about women, and really wanted to prevent abortions, they'd throw their efforts behind contraception and comprehensive sex education, not behind forcing young women to carry to term babies they aren't prepared to have.

Note: while there aren't a lot of comments on this EqualWrites piece, it was posted at Brazen Careerist (as are all our pieces), where it received a whole lot of attention. Check out the comments posted here.

Katha Pollitt on Palin and Clinton

Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has a piece on Palin, Clinton and feminism in today's Chicago Tribune:

Finally, Palin completed the task Clinton began: Running in different parties across a single political season, they have normalized the idea of a woman in the White House. It is hard even to remember how iconoclastic Clinton was—how hard it was for her to negotiate femininity and ambition, to be warm but not weak, smart but not cold, attractive but not sexy, dynamic but not threatening.

It's an interesting one. Have a read.

Prop K: let's find a better solution

By Christina DiGasbarro

For a whole host of reasons, I’m truly glad that San Francisco’s Proposition K didn’t pass; one of the most important of these reasons is that prostitution hurts women, and taking steps towards institutionalizing the practice would allow it to hurt even more women.

That’s not to say that Prop K was a terrible idea through and through. Prop K’s Section 2 would have “requir[ed] the San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco County Office of the District Attorney to enforce existing laws regardless of the victim’s sex worker status.” If the police and DA truly are ignoring sex workers who face rape or extortion or other abuse, I’m not sure how they get away with that; and if they are getting away with not doing their jobs, then San Francisco needs some new policemen and lawyers. Normally, I’d say something like Prop K’s Section 2 is redundant; the law is supposed to protect all victims of crime, regardless of anything. But if that is not happening, then more specific (if redundant) language is indeed necessary.

However, the rest of Proposition K would have removed funding for investigating prostitution and would have decriminalized prostitution. A major problem with defunding such investigations is that lack of funding would seriously cripple efforts to help victims of human trafficking. I was actually surprised that Prop K only referred to human trafficking when casting aspersions on police motives for investigating prostitutes, “under the guise of rescuing trafficked victims.” This seems like disregard for the “alleged trafficked victims.” But make no mistake: human trafficking is still a problem, so much a problem that just this past September California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two bills to further help these victims. Obviously, people who are tricked or forced to come to this country to be “sex workers” have been deprived of almost every human right and dignity we enjoy daily. Removing funding for investigations would be tantamount to letting the victims of human trafficking rot; it would be a severe miscarriage of justice, which is not something we want to encourage.

As for decriminalizing prostitution: why is this practice something we want to legitimize and institutionalize? Do the women who are prostitutes really want to be prostitutes? I honestly don’t think so. I certainly can’t think of any reason why a woman would aspire to be a prostitute. So why does a woman who’s not a victim of trafficking become a prostitute? Most often, because she feels she has no other choice, no other option for making a living. Prostitution is the complete objectification of women; it turns women into mere bodies and denies them human dignity. A woman who is a prostitute is little more than a piece of meat to her customers; how then can we expect those men to view other women as more than meat? Even if the decriminalization of prostitution removed the cultural stigma surrounding prostitutes, it would not change the fact that prostitution is objectification. As far as I can tell, the point of going to a prostitute is to have meaningless sex for one’s own physical pleasure—essentially, to use the woman’s body for one’s own ends and then move on. If that is not degrading to women, I’m not sure what is.

The proper solution to prostitution is not to institutionalize it so that it’s easier for women to turn to a last resort, to objectify themselves and sell their bodies. Unfortunately, we, as humans, have a tendency to fixate solely on symptoms, to try to fix only the visible results of a deeper problem. Decriminalizing prostitution is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound: it doesn’t address the deeper problem of which prostitution is a symptom, namely, the lack of opportunity or education or whatever else that makes women think they have to prostitute themselves to earn a living.

This is what we should be expending our effort on: making sure women get the education they need, making sure opportunities for employment are open to them, making sure they have what they need so that they are not forced into prostitution. Decriminalizing prostitution would legitimize the objectification of women; it would make it that much harder to address the root causes of prostitution and help women find better opportunities. In the meantime, of course anyone who is the victim of a crime should be treated equally by the police and the DA, regardless of what she does for a living; and if equal protection under the law is lacking, something bigger than Prop K needs to be done to solve that problem. Just as importantly, encouraging prostitution is no way to help women because it only addresses symptoms; we owe it to these women to find a real, better solution.

Gendering the Angel

by Elizabeth Winkler

Last weekend at the Met, I was wandering through the customary Western exhibits – Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Neo-classic – and was struck by the evolution of the representation of angelic (or at least winged) figures from Greek and Roman mythology through Christian scripture. Of course, some will argue that the dating of this artwork displaces it from contemporary relevance to the issue of gender, and that, moreover, such a mythologized figure is negligible to discussions of human import. However, I would argue that it is precisely in the roots of Western culture that we must seek to understand the origin of contemporary ideas surrounding gender, and that un-human as the angel may be, it was created by humans, for the viewing of humans, and thus exposes fundamental notions of gender that have shaped artist and viewer alike.

Although there is a decidedly androgynous air to the figure of the angel, they emerge most prominently and most pervasively as male. In Greek sculpture and ceramics, Eros and Hermes appear repeatedly as the earliest and primary ‘winged’ creatures. Later in Christian artwork, biblical angels – Gabriel, Asriel, Raphael, Michael, Uriel, even Lucifer – are illustrated time and again as incontestably male figures. Even in the depiction of cherubs – a term meant to describe young children – the telling male organ is almost always discernable. Think about it: there is never a baby-girl angel. We don’t think of angels in terms of gender, and so the subject is easily overlooked, but when all’s said and done, those cherubs are always little boys.

A female version of the angel surfaced in only two forms: the fairy and the Greek goddess Nike (Victory), most famously portrayed in the “Winged Victory of Samothrace.”

In the medieval world, fairies carried a variety of associations, but generally-speaking were understood to be ‘demoted angels,’ unworthy of heaven but not sufficiently evil to be termed ‘devil.’ As fallen angels, however, they were potentially subject to the influence of the devil such that in some circles they came to be associated with demon-like, or at least mischevious, deeds. This was realized most potently in their association with witchcraft.

Nike, on the other hand, presents on interesting paradox. She figures repeatedly in Greek sculpture as the embodiment of military success (thus carrying strong correlations to Athena). Because of her idolized, allegorical nature as the figure of a certain ‘virtue’ – Victory – she can be placed among similar figures that de Beauvoir uncovers as super-woman, and thus not-woman, members of that elusive category, the “Eternal Feminine.” Among these are, for instance, the figure of ‘Lady Liberty,’ the Virgin, the notion of a female nation (ie: Mother Russia, LA France, references to America as ‘she’) and even the common habit of christening ships with female names.

In these figures, femininity does not exist on its own, but is crafted and projected onto an ideal that no human woman can achieve. Thus, as de Beauvoir discusses, if the provided definition of the feminine is contradicted by flesh-and-blood women, “it is the latter who are wrong; we are not told that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine.”

Granted, numerous Greek figures function as representations of such ‘qualities.’ Where the figure of Victory then becomes interesting is in her surprisingly frequent depiction in the art of the Renaissance and Neo-classical periods. In Christian art, she becomes increasingly and noticeably more feminized (read: curvy, voluptuous, bosom-y), and in this sense, can be seen to function as a definitive representation of the allegorically “feminine.”

What does it mean then, when the female ‘angel’ can only exist as the mischevious, lesser fairy or a symbol of categorical femininity? Why are those cute, cherubic creatures only boys? What idea is being conveyed in the bible when all God’s messengers – among the holiest of the holy – are unconditionally men? The angel is not remotely human; it is associated with no sexual or reproductive capacities: why, then, has the angel been gendered as predominantly ‘man’?