Friday, January 23, 2009

Tidbits: Food, Hair, Obama and Fair Pay

by Laura Smith-Gary

Happy Friday, everybody! By now you should all be relaxing, and have time to start dinner-table conversations about feminism. Here are a few topics that have intrigued me in the past week...

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passes in the Senate, 61-39! It now has to go back to the House for a second approval, but it should pass there, and will potentially become the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama. This bill has been mentioned on Equal Writes before, but I think it's worth mentioning again. This seems pretty clear-cut to me -- getting paid the same for doing the same job in the same company seems like a no-brainer -- but in our sue-happy society, will it trigger a flood of unwarranted lawsuits? Alternative discussion question that I'm asking because I'm a Constitution dork: what effect will this legislation -- which is intended to counteract a 2007 Supreme Court decision -- have on the power dynamics between Congress and the Supreme Court?

Our new president supports women's right to choose! Woohoo! I realize that my happiness at his stance doesn't reflect the positions of everybody who writes for (or reads) this blog, or all feminists who do not read this blog, but I think (I hope!) we can all agree with the President of NOW, who is quoted in the article above saying that we need to prioritize and actively pursue increasing access to birth control and reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, which she says would "dramatically change the debate." Hear, hear. If anyone is wondering and didn't read the article, Obama has yet to change Reagan and Bush's "Mexico City policy" (suspended during the Clinton years), which prevents the U.S. from providing funds to any international family planning organizations if they perform abortions OR if they provide information about abortion, counsel abortion, or refer women to abortion/information-about-
abortion clinics. Seeing as it's only his first week, I'll give him a break. For now. But Obama: that is not an okay policy. Do something about it immediately. Thank you.

A few days ago this story was everywhere, and I was a little surprised not to see it turn up on this blog. Here we have a study indicating that men's and women's brains react differently to temptation regarding food; female brains seem to be less able to "tune out" cravings. Now, where do we go with this? Of course, it's possible that the study was flawed in some way -- I don't have the scientific chops to know if brain reactions like this are tied only to genetics, or if they can be conditioned, though the story seemed to indicate that areas of the brain not associated with conditioning were reacting. Perhaps their data was overgeneralized for a things) does mean men's and women's brains work differently. What does that do to feminism? Was the data overgeneralized to make a sensational headline (a little help here, science people?). But assuming, for a moment, that this study (and others indicating sex-based brain differences) does mean that male and female brains intrinsically react differently to the same stimulus. Does that necessitate embracing some form of gender essentialism? Are it's implications purely practical ("Okay, trying not to think about food may not work as well for me as it does for Bob. Time for a new strategy for losing weight.")? Can we we assert that biological differences (even in the brain, even when decision-making centers are lighting up differently in men's and women's brains) don't indicate intellectual or moral differences? Is this study actually meaningful in any real way? I think I know where I come down on this, but I'm still wrestling with it and would very much appreciate your perspective, Equal Writes community.

Comedian Chris Rock has done a documentary about hair -- specifically the hair of black men and women -- entitled Good Hair. I'm impressed that a male comedian is delving into a "girly" topic, which he acknowledges was discouraged by those around him. In the story I linked to, he says he's been bringing this topic up for a decade, and agents and producers would say, " about a cop movie?" So well done, Chris Rock, for persevering. I'm also excited about the documentary itself. The feminist community, which has long been dominated by white, upper-middle class women, too often ignores issues of race and class. A documentary like Good Hair, an exploration into how our society defines beauty and determines "normalcy," and how differences that might be perceived as trivial (like, say, hair) can become fraught with political significance, is a good step in investigating the tensions and resonances in the fights against racism and sexism.

Have a wonderful intersession!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Overheard on G-chat...

by Jordan Kisner

I was prepping for one of my finals the other day by re-reading an article titled “Sexuality, Pornography and Method” by Catherine MacKinnon. In it, MacKinnon makes the argument that sex is little more than a forum for men to express their innate tendency toward dominating and subjugating women, and she attacks porn as an example and enforcer of this power dynamic. It’s a pretty controversial article, and it inspired a long g-chat conversation between myself and Molly Borowitz. We decided it would be fun to post part of it, and see what all of you think! In the following excerpt, we’re throwing around some ideas about porn and sexual violence:

Molly: wait do you think that porn encourages rape? i haven't decided for myself

Jordan: i think it has done a lot to put the degradation of women at the forefront of people’s notions of sexuality. i think it has done a lot to introduce violence as an acceptable factor in a sexual encounter, even if simulated, and even in scenarios that are portrayed as specifically not rape. it's kind of odd- it's sort of created this notion that an undertone of violence or slightly violent acts are totally acceptable in a sexual situation, even that women LIKE them. which, while not promoting rape, sort of creates a tricky framework to negotiate

Molly: i just wonder whether people are a little less suggestible than this framework assumes.
it's the same thing with video games. of course they create problems for unstable teens—that is certainly a given— and i think that's probably true for porn as well, but part of me believes that people are better able to distinguish between spaces of fantasy (video games, porn) and the spaces of reality wherein it's actually not appropriate to replicate those "imaginary" behaviors.

Jordan: to a large extent i agree with you, demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of men who watch porn and do not aggress against women sexually or otherwise. but, i just read this in the article: "Normal men viewing pornography over time in laboratory settings become more aroused to scenes of rape than to scenes of explicit but not expressly violent sex, even if the woman is shown as hating it." the footnote is court testimony based on about 12 studies.

Molly: 1) that's super scary; 2) i wonder whether that has something to do with the equation of sexual pleasure and power, which i do think men rely on increasingly in a culture where women are asserting their power more and more. one of the articles i read for my porn paper presented this really interesting theory about how female aggression -- especially laughter -- is really threatening to men, kind of emasculating.

Jordan: the other thing that i just read is that 'normal' men, when shown video of violent interaction between a man and a woman, thought it was sexual even if no sexual activity happened. But, in response to your points: 1) yup. it's terrifying; 2) i think that might be exactly right. i think in a culture where sexual taboo is increasingly passe and women are becoming more and more powerful economically/socially/politically, there is a male fantasy of 'putting women back in their place' through this sexual violence. and all of a sudden it's appropriate to express that fantasy, even to make it widespread. porn allows it to be collective, ridding that fantasy of the shame it might carry if it were kept private

Molly: yeah, which is not to say that all men are power-hungry jerks, but rather that they've been socially conditioned to "be in charge". and in fact sexual interactions really support that in some ways, because women -- especially "sexually liberated" ones -- often expect their men to be experienced and skilled, which requires a sexual initiative that might lead to...i don't know exactly what to call it, but maybe "alpha male" behavior?

Jordan: totally true! and the ones who have been brought up in the culture of porn have been conditioned to think of these violent fantasies as inherently sexy rather than an outgrowth of some other kind of social anxiety. or, rather, that social anxiety has become much more subconscious because they are taught by this porn that this is what idealized sex looks like, this is what men are supposed to secretly want, rather than having it be an organic outgrowth of their own experience

Molly: right, so that sex becomes the appropriate outlet for this social frustration. instead change, maybe?

Jordan: haha

Molly: oooh i like that we've reached this point. let's send it to equal writes!

So what do you all think? Does porn incite rape? Does violent porn enact a widespread male fantasy that finds its roots in social issues? How does this translate to real life sexual encounters/ Is anti-porn feminism absolutely right, or completely off-target?


by Franki Butler

I’m sure you are all familiar with the concept of the “personal bubble.” It is a space, unique to each person, inside of which another person should not venture without permission. Some people have very small personal bubbles (mine, for example, extends barely a centimeter past my own skin, unless in very special circumstances), while some people’s personal bubbles are very large. The universal factor in this equation, however, is that one should not intrude into another’s personal space without express or understood permission. Understood permission depends on the person and the relationship. Ex. My best friends can hug me whenever they so please, so long as I’m not in front of my boss or something equally awkward; Rando #5 from the dance floor cannot.

This is all fairly basic information, and I shouldn’t have to write it down. Except that some people are not in the least respectful of other people’s personal space. Many people become less respectful of this personal space when inebriated. And this needs to be examined.

Violators of the personal bubble can be men or women, and either gender can have their bubble invaded, though it becomes especially problematic when it is men deciding to get all up on women. Given the power dynamics of gender and male privilege within our society, a man choosing to put himself in a woman’s personal space means something much different than any other dynamic.

One aspect of male privilege is a feeling of entitlement to the female body. It doesn’t necessarily have to go as far as a man assuming that all women should sleep with him – though that is on the most extreme end – but can simply be the belief that he gets to touch a woman and that she shouldn’t object.

I have several male friends who take great joy in doing this. They will pick up smaller female friends unless given a loud and emphatic “No,” and even then the female objection is viewed as cute rather than serious. They touch and touch and touch because it is “fun,” and do not even consider how they would feel were someone to take such liberties upon their person. This is wrong. Unless you are on a level with someone where you can touch her/him and know it is okay, don’t.

To quote your kindergarten teacher, keep your hands to yourself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Midriffs and minimum wage

by Jordan Bubin

I cannot understand professional cheerleading. I don’t usually watch football games, since Princeton’s local television affiliates tend to play Eagles, Jets, and Patriots games, but Pittsburgh’s route to the Superbowl has given me a chance both to get my fill of large men thrusting and grunting, and to again wonder why women sign up to be cheerleaders.

I still remember when Cosmopolitan—not exactly known for its articles supporting the idea of powerful women—did an exposé on the life of an NFL cheerleader. The pay is horrible—$6 an hour at the time—and the conditions are ridiculous. The women have to follow directions on how to dye and change their hair, meet strict weight requirements, work odd hours, and can be fired for things like gaining a few pounds, getting their hair cut without permission, or not getting their nails done frequently enough.

Now, one of the criticisms of prostitution is that it is something women are forced into doing; that they are forced into selling their bodies by virtue of their opportunities for gainful employment. I don’t think you can apply this to cheerleading. It’s not a job you can get into with a pair of heels and a street corner. You have to apply, and meet constant, idiotic requirements to keep your job.

Which is exactly why I can’t figure out the appeal of the job. There is no job security, and you make no more money than one would bagging groceries or pumping gas. You add nothing to the game, since most of the people who are at the game cannot see you, and anyone watching a broadcast will at most see you flash on screen for a grand total of five seconds. In high school, cheerleading can be a popularity contest—but by the time you’re in college, it seems like its just a competition for who can put herself through the most pain in order to conform to the skinny blonde model of female attractiveness.

I started thinking about all of this, in fact, because it pissed me off that the cheerleaders adhere to that model of attractiveness. I pictured alternative cheerleading possibilities—because if we’re going to be insipid, let’s go all the way—and thought about separate cheerleading squads, each geared around appeal to a different population segment. Why not keep the bulimic blondes, and add in a group of inked and pierced brunettes, and a roster of Chippendales for the ladies (and for the guys)?

Clearly, the ideal to which they are forced to appeal is not the point. What got to me more, like I said, is why they exist at all. Even football fanatics aren’t interested in watching the cheerleaders—which is not to say they don’t appreciate thighs flashing by on the screen; simply that, while the “frattiest” of my friends thinks cheerleaders are attractive, he doesn’t care if they’re there or not. There doesn’t seem to me, therefore, a major demand for professional cheerleaders like there is for prostitution.

Perhaps the institution of cheerleading exists out of some idiotic inertia, then. Mostly, though, it seems to me like a rather extreme example of women seeking to appeal to men, to be sought after, to slavishly meet some desire. When I say extreme, I’m fully aware that there are more physically and emotionally painful things that women are put through for just that purpose, but I’m trying to point out that cheerleaders rank pretty high on both the physical and emotional pain scale, and without any explicit request for doing so—which is what makes me wonder:

Is the fact that cheerleading exists another piece of proof of the need for feminism? Or is it evidence that feminism is screwed, since women voluntarily choose to do such things for adoration and minimum wage? I prefer to think it’s the former, and that my inability to see the connection between male power and women’s incentives to become a professional cheerleader is a result of my own inadequacies at seeing things from a female perspective; that I need to work harder on my own feminism. I wonder more than a little, when I see midriffs in single-digit weather, but I hope I’ve just missed something.

A whole page just about WOMEN???

If you have a moment, check out Obama's new page on women's issues at (it's so gorgeous! I can't get over how amazing it is to talk about this new administration).

Among his pledged issues are women's health (fighting cancer, empowering women to struggle against AIDS, fixing the healthcare system), supporting reproductive choice, strengthening domestic violence laws and reducing violence against women abroad, equal pay, caring for female veterans, raising the minimum wage, and protecting Title IX.

I could go on, but I'm getting a little teary. What do you think about Obama's agenda for women? Is there more he could be doing?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I shouldn't have to say this, but please do not remove my IUD unless I ask you to do so.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula has a post up about the Mexican nurse who's been removing women's IUDs against their wills. As if that's not scary enough (and believe me, it's scary), she also has no idea how an IUD actually works, saying that "what the IUD does is take the fertilized egg and pushes it out of the uterus."

Actually (and I can't believe a nurse practitioner at a family health services clinic doesn't know this) "what it does is induce a low-grade, local inflammation in the reproductive tract that causes changes in cervical mucus, hindering the passage of sperm. The device itself also seems to block sperm activity, and some IUDs also slowly release progestin, a hormone that suppresses ovulation. It is not an abortifactant. It is basically a kind of barrier method. Most of the uninformed complaints about the IUD are built on the fact that it also induces changes to the uterine lining which would inhibit implantation if sperm somehow managed to fertilize an egg."

As Myers says, "how about firing this bozo because she is ignorant about the facts of her job?"

It's scary that people like this are allowed within fifty feet of an IUD, or of any form of contraception that a woman has freely chosen and hasn't asked to have removed. But at least Myers has a sense of humour about it:

"Ladies, welcome to your future. A future in which others will decide whether you may have children or not. Don't worry, though: they will never say "not". And don't feel like your choices will be taken out of your hands, you still have a choice. If you don't want to get pregnant, just never have sex, you slut."

Strong and "nice:" not mutually exclusive

by Eva Wash

I’ve just been browsing through a book at the Princeton Public library for a few minutes—it’s entitled The Nice Girl Syndrome: 10 Steps to Empowering Yourself and Ending Abuse by Beverly Engel. As Engel recognizes, women generally like to nurture, we like to be generous with our affection for friends and family, we like to be affirmed for positive qualities. But where do we draw the line with “niceness?” What characterizes a Nice Girl?

Engel explains, “According to the dictionary, synonyms for the word nice include careful, pleasant, subtle, agreeable, likable, delightful, good, admirable, pleasing. These words describe a Nice Girl to a T. In fact, many Nice Girls have an investment in being perceived in all of these ways. But I also think of other words when I think of the word nice, namely, compliant, passive, wishy-washy, and phony.”

I’ve certainly known people in the past—boys, but mostly girls—who are so caught up in trying to please everyone and be liked that you can never really pinpoint any aspect of their personality besides their “niceness.” Often, this singular trait can lead either to people taking her feelings for granted because she never asserts herself or perceiving her as phony or disingenuous. In either case she often becomes a victim, of abusive and negligent treatment, and/or of gossip, mistrust, and manipulation.

To combat such negative consequences of niceness, Engel’s steps include, “Stop Putting Others’ Feelings and Needs ahead of Your Own,” “Stop Believing that Nice People Will Protect You,” “Stop Worrying What Other People Think of You,” “Stop Being Gullible And Naïve,” “Start Standing Up for Your Rights.” All of these attributes, according to Engel, are characteristics of a strong woman and a strong woman isn’t nice.

To a certain extent, I have to disagree with the way in which Engel opposes being strong and nice. I think that at the heart of her proposed steps lies an essential need for feelings of self-worth and self-respect. The typical, healthy woman who fully recognizes her own self-worth will be strong and confident, while at the same time, recognize the worth of others and treat them with the characteristic aspects of nice behavior. She is able to appraise a situation or relationship as harmful or compromising to her mental and physical health. Yet, she does not have to disregard her desire to care for others and give of herself, for this is what enables women to have more emotionally intimate friendships and relationships.

This is an incredible moment

Happy Inauguration Day, everyone! I hope you've found a (warm) place to watch the festivities. If you're in D.C., I'm jealous. What are you doing? How are you feeling? We've finally elected a president who won't try to infringe on women's reproductive rights (and who supports equal pay).

You can watch the inauguration live here.

This is an amazing day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tyra Banks: Giving Other Women an "Excuse" to Be Fat?

This is really charming. Nick Coles of Spike TV, doing a job which is certainly essential during this shaky economic climate, has compiled a list of the top "butterbodies" in show business.

In case you need it, Coles has the "true" definition of a "butterbody" (to dispel all the rumors that are threatening to make butterbody-dom acceptable): "A woman who has a beautiful face but a body that’s gone to butter." Coles goes on to observe that because "celebrities are not like normal people" they have no excuse to descend to these horrific levels. And, even worse, they give ordinary women an excuse to be "curvy" - by which he means fat.

The "butterbodies" include: Tyra Banks, Mandy Moore, Drew Barrymore, America Ferrera, and other actresses who can't be more than a size 8 (which is the new 16). Sexism, folks! It's alive and well.

The article says it all. And explore some of Coles' other pieces, but be prepared to do a lot of cringing.

Via Feministing

Salads, songstresses and sexism

by Molly Borowitz

More on the exciting debate started by Chloe's apparently controversial post "Overheard at the gym."

Overheard at an eating club (by the salad bar, no less):
Guy: No, but I really like her music! (adopting a sarcastic tone) She really, like, speaks to my soul, you know?
Girl (dismissively): What are you, a woman?

I think this particular interaction is a great illustration of the difference between Chloe's notion of the perpetuation of unproductive gender norms (supported by Josh Franklin and commenters) and Kelly's deployment of the term "sexism." Why? Because in this exchange, it's the girl (not the guy) using a stereotypically feminine behavior as an insult.

So what's actually going on here? These two were apparently engaged in an argument over the merits of some artist—if I had to guess, I'd pick a pop singer—with the dude in favor and the girl against. It sounds like the guy has been trying to justify his appreciation of this music and is here resorting to self-deprecation in order to head off his combatant's scorn. His comment is entirely self-ironic and not at all sexist—while he's certainly belittling himself for being sensitive or overemotional, he doesn't link that characteristic to the feminine gender; in other words, that trait doesn't automatically denote a reduction in his masculinity.

His friend, however, immediately registers his self-declared sensitivity as silly, fatuous, or overemotional—and therefore "girly." She adds an extra layer of negativity to his musical preferences by ascribing them to women. It's not enough that she thinks this particular artist is bad to begin with; the most effective way for her to assert her own opinion is to attack his masculinity.

Yikes. There's obviously a relationship between this exchange and the one Chloe overheard between "Guy 1" and "Guy 2," and I think it can help to illuminate the problem that Kelly and "Guy 1" had in differentiating between the pressures of conforming to gender norms and plain old sexism. The actions or sentiments involved (stretching your groin muscles, nursing a secret adoration for Rihanna's music) and the comments that surrounded them ("That is not a man's machine right there," "What are you, a woman?") absolutely ascribe typically "feminine" postures or preferences with a certain degree of negativity, but only when they are adopted by men. Neither "Guy 2" nor the girl I've mentioned above are stating that holding such opinions is categorically bad—and that's what keeps them from being sexist.

It's totally fine when women feel or act in those ways; it doesn't make them stupid or silly or weak or inferior, because that's how they're supposed to behave. The problem emerges only when men, who are supposed to act and feel differently, exhibit a "feminine" behavior. People like "Girl" and "Guy 2" apparently frown on such behaviors because they detract from the other man's ability to conform to expected ideas of masculinity—and if you don't conform to the stereotype, obviously you're not a "real" man.

Let me be clear here: in my opinion, none of these people (the girl, the guy, "Guy 1," and "Guy 2") were making intentionally sexist comments—or even sexist comments at all. No one expressed the belief that women and the way we act are objectively inferior to men. Instead, what they suggested is that men who act like women are less manly. However, this belief is a very short hop from sexism—which is why the girl's comment is cause for concern. The exchange above, in conjunction with "Overheard at the gym," reminds us that we have to look both ways when crossing the gender-norms street. In order to successfully overcome the stereotypes of typical femininity, we also have to combat stereotypes of typical masculinity—both in boys and in ourselves.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Where are the women, Wes?

by Lauren Rother

It isn't surprising that we often find a subculture represented mostly by men. From punk culture's male-dominated music scene, to hipters' well dressed male army, we know that women exist in these scenes. We see them at shows, in bands and running publications. But we don't seem to talk about them. Hipster movies frequently center on the coming-of-age story of a fashionable young man dealing with the demons of a dysfunctional family; think Royal Tenenbaums, Igby Goes Down, I Heart Huckabees, anything Wes Anderson has done, actually.

Pineapple Express stars Seth Rogen as the loveable, laid back pot head, Dale, who finds himself running around with James Franco as wacky, hippie pot-dealer, Saul. They wander through the movie, encountering constant problems throughout their hijincks. Pineapple Express does for stoner culture what all of Wes Anderson's productions do for hipster culture: shows us a fantastic stoner world, where the underdog stoners come out on top. But I'm left wondering, where are the women stoner heroes?

There are two main women in the movie: Dale's highly attractive younger girlfriend, Angie (Amber Heard), and the crooked cop, Carol (Rosie Perez). To the movie's credit, Dale acknowledges that his girlfriend is far more attractive than he is and much younger, in a way that isn't meant as bragging. This is a small step forward from the classical pairing of hot, young female with aging, non-classically attractive male. (I'm holding my breath for a major blockbuster showing a non-classically attractive female with a hot, young male.) But Angie isn't included in the stoner culture. She's referenced as someone who has smoked pot "occasionally," and then, only because her boyfriend does.

Carol is an integral part in pot-culture only insofar as she is assisting in a drug-ring. Again, it's refreshing to see, not just a woman police officer, but a woman of color as an officer. I'm torn on the issue of her being a crooked cop. Generally, filled by older white men (who are also part of the drug-ring in Pineapple Express), and the position is somewhat balanced by another woman of color in the position of righteous cop. But neither of these women are part of the subculture, either. And, of course, none of the women are the heroes. They are the side stories.

I am just curious where the women stoners are. Where is the movie that acknowledges them? Half Baked is all about stoner men. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Super High Me, and all of the Cheech and Chong movies… full of men.

I think the important point to note is that subcultures, seen for flouting the norms, are often more in line with them that we acknowledge, and it is important to examine these commonalities in order to, not only see the subculture more clearly, but see the "norm" more clearly as well.