Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween is for the W****s

Ok, so every once in awhile you can find a costume that actually reaches your knees, but after visiting the Halloween store in Davis yesterday I am quite disheartened by the lack of conservative... no, not just conservative but NORMAL costumes out there for women. Every costume had a price tag of fifty dollars, and every costume had a hemline of somewhere between halfway up my thigh and never never land. Since when did this kid's / pagan holiday turn into an excuse for dressing up in the sluttiest of dresses? I usually battle these costumes by making my own, but being in law school doesn't particularly aid me in finding time to buy a pattern, cloth and actually sew the darn thing. I finally settled on accoutrments which will make me slightly resemble a cat (ears, tail, gloves). But I was shocked at the lack of choices available to me at the store. For comparable costumes, click here. You'll note that the vast majority of them are well above the knee in length. And this is not stuff out of Victoria's Secret, nor is it part of the "sexy" link you'll find on that same website. This is just normal Halloween costume fare.

The worst thing is not the costumes for women. It's the costumes for girls. Tummies show, hemlines are high, necklines are low, it's like we're slutting up our children as well as ourselves, if you pardon my French. What are we teaching our children? To wear scanty clothing themselves? To see us wearing slutty costumes and think that's a good thing?

Women and children are being objectified through this holiday. I don't suggest a law making us all conservative dressers like they have in many Muslim countries, but I do find something objectionable when there are simply no costumes to be found that cover one up at all. There needs to be a choice.

Chilean President succeeds in spite (or because?) of her gender--and her focus on women and children

A story in today's New York Times report on the current popularity and recent successes of Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first woman president and a pediatrician by training. Though Bachelet's start was rough when she took office back in 2006, her approval ratings are now at about 70% as her time in office nears an end. Term limits prevent her from seeking re-election. Alexei Barrionuevo reports that she is likely to be remembered as one of the nation's best presidents ever. Bachelet's popularity is presented as especially surprising because she is an agnostic, single mother of three in a deeply religious and traditional country that only recently legalized divorce.

How has Bachelet, now 58, managed this feat? Barrionuevo attributes it to her fiscal prudence, which ultimately has permitted her to advance her social reform agenda. In particular, when economic times were good, Bachelet chose to set aside $35 billion in copper revenues. When the global financial crisis hit, Chile was in good shape. Barrionuevo writes:

With billions of dollars saved, Ms. Bachelet’s government legalized alimony payments to divorced women and tripled the number of free early child care centers for low-income families. It added a minimum pension guarantee for the very poor and for low-income homemakers. The government is on pace to complete its goal of creating 3,500 child care centers, said MarĂ­a Estela Ortiz, executive vice president of Chile’s National Board of Day Care Centers.

* * *

Opposition politicians who once criticized her social-protection efforts as a retreat to an era of big government are now saying they will try to expand her programs to the middle class.
So Bachelet, presumably inspired by her past profession as a pediatrician, has chosen to invest in her county's future. She is quoted as saying, “I believe that if you want to fight inequality you have to do it starting at infancy.”

The NYT story also takes up what might be considered Bachelet's common touch, a "personal air" that has caused some to see her as not respectful of the presidency. The examples cited include joking about losing a shoe while kicking a soccer ball at a stadium inauguration and taking an early morning ocean swim while in Brazil for a meeting of regional leaders. The photo that accompanies the NYT story shows her dancing in front of the presidential palace as part of independence anniversary celebrations. A Chilean pollster is quoted as observing: “She lowered the presidency closer to the people.”

Is there something gendered in this behavior, which doesn't strike me as all that remarkable? Or is there something gendered in how the behavior is interpreted?

NB I am surprised--but pleased--to see that at 9:30 pm on the day of its publication, this story is on the's most emailed list.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More on women's "stalled progress"

The Judith Warner column that was the subject of my blog post yesterday discussed the so-called Shriver Report. In that post, I referred to it as a recent publication by the Center for American Progress.

Now Joanne Lipman's op-ed in the New York Times discusses the same report, drawing some conclusions similar to those of Warner. For example, both Lipman and Warner observe that the report's title, "A Woman's Nation Changes Everything" is mis-leading--mis-leadingly positive, that is. Lipman, whose piece is currently the second most emailed item on the New York Times website, writes, "progress for women has stalled ... attitudes have taken a giant leap backward."

She goes on to talk about "her generation," often referred to as third-wave feminists or the post-feminist generation, who took a lot for granted and "derided the women's liberation movement" as "strident, humorless." She recounts details of her own career, some negative, some positive. Among the negative was dressing the part of the journalist she became: "out-machoing the men with our truly tragic wardrobe choices — boxy suits with giant shoulder pads and floppy bow ties." Among the positive was her promotion to deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal--a first for a woman--while she was pregnant. Then she observes:
And yet during the last few years, I couldn’t help but notice that the situation for women as a whole wasn’t improving, and was even getting worse.
She provides many examples to support her conclusion, and I encourage you to read the entire column. Then, however, she gets down to her assessment of "why" (including some interesting links to 9/11 that I won't go into here):
Part of the reason we’ve lost our way, part of the reason my generation became complacent, is that many of us have been defining progress for women too narrowly. We’ve focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes. ... We’ve got to include popular perceptions in the equation as well.
By perceptions, Lipman refers, for example, to the "witch" and "bimbo" problem. Women--especially successful women--are portrayed as one, the other or--BONUS--both!

Lipman's recommendations for change--and for what each woman can do--are even more interesting. Here are some highlights:
  • "First, we can begin by telling girls to have confidence in themselves, to not always feel the need to be the passive 'good girl'.” This means, Lipman says, asking for a raise. It means taking risks. (This reminds me of an earlier, very popular column that appeared in the NYT, but written by a younger woman. Read my post here).
  • Second, "have a sense of humor ... it's needed."
  • Third, "[d]on't be afraid to be a girl."
I am not sure I agree entirely with the third point, which Lipman elaborates, in part, "women have a different culture from men." But I do like her closing comment, which comes back to culture and something other than numerical indicators that suggest women's lot has so improved in recent decades:
[M]aybe the best thing — the enduring thing — we can do is make sure respect is part of the equation too.If we can change the conversation about women, the numbers will finally add up.
That, Lipman suggests, will look like "real progress."

How do you know when your quiver is full?

The Sacramento News and Review ran a very interesting article last week on a local chapter of the Quiverfull movement, a conservative Christian movement that restricts the use of birth control and encourages women to submit to their husbands.  Submitting in this context means staying home, having lots of children, and liking it (by God).  According to Quiverfull teachings, modern-day ills can be directly traced to the feminist movement, "as society allowed women and girls more freedom and equality, instances of rape and sexual abuse skyrocketed."  The followers have sketched out an effective antidote, however: have as many babies as possible, homeschool them, don't let your daughters go to college, and prevent women from voting.  

In the article Theron Johnson, a founding father of the Quiverfull church in Roseville, illustrates his ideal world where "racism is eliminated" and "personal liberty and freedom reign supreme".  He goes on to say that the government's primary role in society should be to "protect family and individual rights".  Of course, this all sounds wonderful, but while Theron's lips say personal liberty and individual rights, his practice and beliefs say that women have no rights at all.  More than that, women need to be taken care of by a good Christian man, but if anything bad does happen, it is the women's fault.  Theron sites one Bible story in which  Jacob's daughter Dinah leaves the protection of her father and is subsequently raped.  Her brothers kill the offenders, but the rape is seen as Dinah's punishment for disobeying.  Based on this, the Quiverfull movement believes that, "men are not responsible or culpable for their own actions. Rather women either commit sins or somehow cause men to sin." This convenient dichotomy means men can have all the power and control with none of the consequences.

What's fundamentally wrong with this ideal world? Putting aside for the moment the utterly contradictory nature of the tenets, and the potential for patriarchal megalomania, the biggest problem is that not all women want to live in this type of society.  If personal liberty is important to the faith, it should be extended to women who may want to have a career and choose not to have children at all.  I am one of those women, who at 31 has yet to marry or procreate, and is looking forward to a rewarding career that is completely separate from the family life of my choosing.  The members of Quiverfull act as if women are happier and healthier when they are taken care of and kept at home, but the article chronicles an example of a women who was a member of the Quiverfull movement until one of her daughters tried to commit suicide.  Vyckie Garrison, who now pens a blog called No Longer Quivering, said her daughter "wanted to be an autonomous being, and this was not being allowed."  Garrison points out that women in the Quiverfull movement are expected to give and give and give.  This can't be done indefinitely, she says, "without falling apart."

This begs the question, are Christianity and feminism mutually exclusive?  The ultra conservative website reiterates that the role of women is to care for and nurture her family, and that a "Christian woman has no place supporting or being a part of" the feminist movement.  Thankfully, not all Christians feel this way.  Former President Jimmy Carter, a member of his Southern Baptist Church for more then 60 years, recently decided that his beliefs about women were not compatible with the church's reluctance to ordain women ministers.  Writing in The Age about his decision, Carter made it clear that religion has played a role in the current and historical mistreatment of women:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had -- and still have -- an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.

I couldn't have said it better myself, Jimmy.  The truth is, I want to believe that Christianity and feminism are compatible.  Which is why I hope that movements like Quiverfull, which blatantly role back what I consider to be significant progress for humankind, will ultimately fail to gain more than fringe support among the faithful.  

Friday, October 23, 2009


That's what Judith Warner suggests in her latest Domestic Disturbances column, "When We're Equal, We'll be Happy." Read it here. Warner writes in response to what she calls the "whole cultural brouhaha caused by the news ... that despite all the objective improvements to their lives over the past four decades, women today appear to be less happy than they were in 1972."

In spite of various empirical studies showing that women are less happy than they were decades ago (such as here), Warner expresses skepticism, in part because emotions are difficult to quantify. She also notes that happiness is relative, that we tend to judge it "against our expectations of how we are supposed to feel and how good we think life is supposed to be." She suggests that in the early 1970s, women believed that things were getting better--or that least they were about to "come together" ... But, Warner concludes, that hasn't really happened.

Warner quotes a recent publication by the Center for American Progress that depicts what she calls a "bleak portrait of women's non-progress in our day." She cites the wage gap, sex-segregation in education and the workforce, and stereotypes that "steer most women into low-paid, low-status, low-security professions." Warner continues:
Women pay more for health insurance than men, have more extensive health needs than men, and suffer unique forms of discrimination in their coverage. (Women may be denied coverage because they had a Caesarean delivery or were victims of domestic violence — both “preexisting conditions.”) Regardless of the number of hours they work, they continue to do far more caretaking and housekeeping work at home than do their husbands. And discrimination against mothers (but not fathers) in the workplace is all but ubiquitous.
Warner goes on to clear feminism of blame for this rather sad state of affairs, declaring these facts " indicators of all the ways in which society has failed women, most importantly... by failing to address the needs of working families."

It's a powerful column, and well worth a read in its entirety. I'd appreciate it even more, however, if Warner spent some time unpacking what she means by "equality," remembering that--technically speaking--women have achieved formal equality before the law (with very few exceptions that relate to particular contexts). Maybe her reference to the ways society has failed to respond to the needs of working families is the key to what she means by equality--and the lack of it. Indeed, perhaps the problem is one of various types of anti-discrimination laws not being enforced in a meaningful way--in part because they cannot readily or easily be enforced in the context of our persistently patriarchal culture.

Apathy yields brutal results.

This semester I have been thinking a lot how laws affect women.  So many of the issues we discuss in the feminist discourse present the same problem: how do we challenge deeply entrenched stereotypes? We wonder how we can create a system of equal caregiving in this (relatively new) system of equal breadwinning, or how to challenge women and poverty? I’m constantly thinking about breaking gender stereotypes in children, as a way to create a more egalitarian future. We speak often of this “no problem, problem,” where the issues in need of address are so pervasive, that they go unseen.  As a classmate aptly put it the other day, the fish are the last ones to see the ocean.

Thinking about these issues, I often feel overwhelmed.  These problems are so socially entrenched, that any solution must be a massive, educational undertaking, probably taking generations to implement. 

The past two weeks, however, I’ve see glaringly obvious, and (relatively) curable injustices.  In our legal and social responses to situations that are uncommon and particularly heinous, we see the real problem: funding and energy channeled, not into social reform legislation, but into the legislation of easing corporate voracity. Two recent stories make this point painfully clear.

 Awaking the morning after a brutal gang rape by her coworkers, Jamie Leigh Jones was confined in a storage container under instructions from her employer (one-time Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, and denied access to a phone, only to later find that she had, upon employment, signed a binding arbitration agreement, thereby waiving any rights to a civil suit against fellow employees.  Out of court arbitration, with all details previously decided by Halliburton / KBR, was Jones’ only legal option.

 In another traumatic story, Christina Turner was denied health insurance for three years because she took an anti-HIV drug after being raped.  In this case, the “potential” of HIV, demonstrated by taking anti-HIV drugs after a rape, was considered a preexisting condition, making turner “uninsurable.” Nurses who work with sexually assaulted women say the insurance industry’s policy creates a serious problem:

"It’s difficult enough to make sure that rape victims take the drugs," said Diana Faugno, a forensic nurse in California and board director of End Violence Against Women International. "What are we supposed to tell women now? Well, I guess you have a choice – you can risk your health insurance or you can risk AIDS. Go ahead and choose."

Jamie Lee Jones is back in the limelight because of a recently proposed amendment.  This amendment “prohibits the U.S. government from contracting with companies that prevent their employees from accessing the U.S. justice system regarding rape and sexual assault claims. The main issue is that allowing private companies to present their employees with these contracts is repugnant to society’s interests in preventing and prosecuting rape and all violence against women.”

The amendment was opposed by 30 senators, who argued that companies need to have “freedom to contract” without government interference.  These senators are mischaracterizing the thrust of the amendment though; what it would actually do is block government funding of companies who continue to contract in this way.

The senators’ opposition to the proposed amendment is appalling.  We would never stand for laws that bar suits against child abuse, or attempted murder,  but somehow contracts barring civil suits for rape are allowed? The covertness of insurance company policies are equally disturbing.   California seems to be the only state doing something about it.  California alone requires data from companies on how many and why insurance claims are denied.  

Why are our laws protecting companies at the expense of individual victims?  Rape is clearly horrendous, and yet, we, through our lack of government involvement,  allow victims to continue being victimized.  Corporations save lots of money by treating employees badly or depriving people of rights, but when it comes to rape, we, as a society, generally agree that rape is intolerable.  Legislation reform for such obvious injustices seems feasible.  Why are people not pushing their elected representatives to make more humane decisions? How can America be so apathetic?  


tea parties and nerf guns

I watched an episode of According to Jim the other night. The plotline involved two daughters of the main character having a tea party with the "National" dolls at the "National doll" factory, an obvious parody of the very successful girl's "American Girl" dolls. The girls were disappointed with their party until their father gave them nerf guns to play with, which they did without abandon, creating chaos and knocking over every tea table they had started off with. What does this say about masculine and feminine types of play, I wonder?

The girls were bored with the traditionally female type of play (tea parties and dolls) and were much more interested in traditionally male type of play (gunnning down their friends with toy guns). Is this progress, that women can play at men's games? Or is equality really gearing these women to be violent when they grow up? Do we want to encourage youngsters of both ages to learn to defend themselves, to learn combat skills they may use serving our country in the military, or do we want to continue "protecting" them by giving them dolls, tea parties and no access to fake weapons? And on a side note, are our children really so lacking in attention that they can no longer enjoy a quiet tea party with good conversation? TV teaches our children many things, some of which are apparent in this episode: short attention spans and condoning violence. Is it good to let children play with gendered toys for both genders, or should we try to encourage boys and girls alike to be polite and thoughtful in their play? You tell me.

Virtual tomboy: my secret life as a girl gamer

While the law profession may still be male-dominated at the highest levels, my experience of law as a student is quite different. King Hall's student body is 53% female, and, perhaps because I am on the female-dominated public interest track, the gender division feels more like 60/40 to me. Whatever the reason, my "professional life"--such as it is at the moment--is characterized by interactions with women, both as peers and as professors, supervisors, and advisers.

In fact, most of my social and recreational life has been set in similarly female-oriented environments; as a dancer and practitioner of yoga, I've never been much of a tomboy physically. However, I've recently been spending a significant portion of my free time in what is inescapably a man's world: a highly popular MMORPG (massively multi-player online role playing game) in which the ratio of male to female players is about 80/20 (84% male in 2005--I was unable to find more recent statistics, but based on my experience, this is fairly accurate.) The fact that I belong to such a demographically small minority is not something I normally think about during game play--I'm more preoccupied with figuring out how to improve my spell damage--but when I step back and consider my experiences through a feminist lens, there are some fascinating things going on, some expected and some surprising.

One interesting aspect is other women's reaction when I tell them about my hobby. From confusion to outright dismay bordering on disgust, I suspect there's an aspect of gender enforcement at work: why would a girl want to play that kind of game? It's not like I would want to date any of those guys, right? Of course there's another stereotype at work here (in fact, most of the people I play with are married, and none of them live in their parents' basement.) But the implication is that girls don't game, and if they do, they must be doing it to meet men. Men, on the other hand, don't engage in this kind of social enforcement--they may be surprised at my interest, but they're normally more impressed than distressed.

An ungendered world?

One aspect I really appreciate about the MMORPG I play is that it presents a world apparently without gendered roles--the non-player guards, bandits, warriors, and leaders that populate the game world are as likely to be female as male, and male and female characters are equally available for players regardless of role or the player's actual gender. Furthermore, because of the anonymity provided by the internet and by the use of avatars to represent the player, no one can determine a player's gender unless he or she chooses to reveal it. Players are judged by skill rather than prejudged based on gender. The game world is also designed to be highly cooperative, rather than wholly competitive--players must team up to achieve the biggest triumphs and get the best rewards.

On the other hand, with such a disparity between male and female players, the reality is that one is assumed to be male unless proven otherwise--as in so many other contexts, male is the "default" gender, as evident in the Urban Dictionary's definition of girl gamer: "What are you talking about? No girls exist on the internet. Girl gamer - As real as bigfoot. " The environment isn't truly ungendered--it's gendered male. This is also apparent in the character art. As with most mainstream pornography, the female characters tend to be conventionally pretty and homogeneously well-endowed, while most of the options for male characters are rather unattractive.

This aesthetic by males, for males probably contributes to another interesting aspect of online gaming--the G.I.R.L. or Guy In Real Life. When I first began to play with large groups in high-level content, I was impressed by the number of men out there playing female characters. In fact, as many as 55% of female characters are played by males. It seemed to me that their willingness to have themselves represented as a woman in the game world showed a progressive attitude toward gender--especially since no one ever gave anyone a hard time for using a female avatar. However, after thinking about it, I realized there might be a more prosaic and much more patriarchy-friendly reason for this trend. Since a player spends the great majority of their time in-game looking at their avatar (their representation in the virtual world), it makes sense that many men would choose to look at the large breasts and pretty face of a female avatar.

"Kill the bitch": sexist language in the virtual world

Perhaps I'm lucky, or perhaps because most of the people I play with are friends outside of the game, I've experienced very little (if any) sexism directed at me personally. (I also play on a server that has a reputation for being GLBT-friendly, which may contribute to a more gender-progressive environment.) However, sexist language is endemic as colloquialism in this environment. Female enemies are frequently referred to as "bitches," being killed swiftly (especially by many opponents) is "getting raped."

This places me in a social quandary that is probably familiar to any feminist who routinely hangs out with the guys. Melissa McEwan writes eloquently and with great emotion about this dilemma in her piece The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck: "I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship." Does one speak up and inject politics and seriousness into the fun of the activity? Do I want to be the girl the guys tread carefully around? Most of the time, I don't--although I like to think that I would choose differently were the objectionable language directed at me or another female players. As one of our classmates observed about her experience with sexism at a law firm, I become a "silent feminist," letting my principles slide in exchange for the conviviality of the group experience because it doesn't bother me that much and because I know it's not intended to offend. And each time, I wonder about my willingness to do so. Do I have a responsibility as a feminist to police sexist language? How bad is the bargain that I'm making? What does it say about me that I make that compromise without all that much regret?

Just one of the guys?

The truth is that I very much enjoy my participation in this stereotypically male environment, not in spite of the men I play with but because of them. Those I play with regularly all know I'm female; they don't treat me with any less respect because of that. I suspect if anything I get a little bit of extra slack because of it, an odd kind of reverse sexism that bothers me more than the occasional sexist language. By entering a sphere perceived and claimed as male I have gained a kind of privilege, and been welcomed rather than ostracized. The silent feminist within me still wonders: at what price? But the tired law student wonders: is it so bad to not want to educate others about feminism every second of every day?

The Career Question

One day in kindergarten, we were asked what our parents do. I informed the class that my father pumped gas (I loved the smell of gas at the time) and my mother was a lawyer. Neither of those statements could be further from the truth, but they illustrate that my both my fierce feminist streak and my desire to go to law school also developed at a young age. Now that my law school experience is coming to a rapid close, thoughts are on the inevitable: next steps. In thinking about career, family and my personal goals, I’ve come across several interesting articles that discuss gender dynamics in the legal profession, and how those dynamics have their roots in law school.

The first article is a study examining law students’ career motivations – the authors completed interviews with 15 men and 14 women during both first and second semester of their 1L year. The study looked at motivations for attending law school, barriers to career goals, and, during the second semester, the effect of first semester grades on the students’ aspirations. Many students’ concerns echo that of a typical law student: students enter law school drawn to public interest work but typically shift away from that work because of financial concerns; first year GPAs effect how students’ perceive themselves and their ability to obtain the “good” (corporate jobs); and thoughts about career/family balance come sharply into play.

What was interesting about the study is that the women had typically done better in undergrad, but then after first semester most had lower GPAs then the men. Most of the women then all lowered their expectations of employment based on their GPAs (conversely, the woman with the highest GPA discussed in her second interview going to a big firm and becoming partner). The women were typically more drawn to non-profit work, and the men assumed that they would have careers in the corporate world.

The perceptions of the work/family conflict were very interesting; 11 of the women and 9 of the men said they anticipate a conflict between their career and family life. However, the women anticipated this conflict differently than the men, assuming that they would take time off and/or work part-time when they had children. Many of the women did not anticipate being able to have both children and a career, and certainly not a career on partner-track. Several of the men felt that they would miss out on aspects of family life because of their work schedule, but did not anticipate having children and a family as a barrier to career (whereas many of the women did).

In another article on career developments for female law students, the authors recommend holistic career counseling that takes into account the age, gender, race and interests of the student. So often, as is the trouble with the article above, law school is equated with a firm job. Corporate work spells success and is what many law students are measured by; their ability to perform well in school and their ability to obtain one of these jobs. I have pursued only the stereotypically more “female” oriented work, that of public interest. I did not participate in OCI, and I have no intention of working for a firm. As with much of feminist theory (and adding in the question of masculinity theory), it is time to re-formulate what success is. Most law students don’t, for myriad reasons, end up going into corporate work. Why then do we continue to hold it as the ideal? Why is our notion of success so limited? If we begin to re-negotiate the value of career for both men and women, my hope is that gender barriers and perceptions among law students (and lawyers) will begin to lessen.

Asking "the man question" in feminist legal theory

Feminist legal theory's treatment of men has not been kind. Liberal feminism treated men as objects of analysis, cultural feminism treated men as Other, radical feminism treated men as oppressors, and postmodern feminism omitted men entirely.

Yet, some feminist legal theorists are challenging feminists to ask the man question. Nancy E. Dowd argues that much feminist analysis has left men as a group to be “undifferentiated, even universal.” According to Dowd, the inclusion of masculinities into feminist discourse will not only de-essentialize men in feminist theory, it will “enrich efforts to identify male privilege and the specific practices that sustain male dominance, and expose the price of male privilege in male disadvantage.” Simply infusing both masculinities and feminist theories, however, will not instantaneously create gender equality. Dowd cautions that masculinities discourse does not share the same agenda for equality as feminism – as it is “more descriptive of men and masculinities rather than analyzing how and why their power is sustained.”

While many masculinities theorists continue to focus on the social construction of masculinity and the existence of multiple masculinities rather than analyze power inequalities, there is evidence of a shift in masculinities discourse -- as illustrated in the work of sociologists Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe.

Schrock and Schwalbe describe masculinity as a “dramaturgical task of establishing credibility as a man and thus as a member of the dominant gender group” such that “the existence of the ‘men’ depends on the collective performance and affirmation of manhood acts.’” They focus particularly on the interactional analyses of gender, observing what men do both individually and collectively to identify themselves as men. In doing so, they describe the ways in which men must signify possession of a masculine self—often by repressing emotions, valorizing sexual objectification of women, controlling others, intimidating others, and acting out violently—in order to be credible as men and access the privileges of the dominant gender group. Simply engaging in the performative act of being a man reproduces gender inequality, as most manhood acts are focused on reaching the top of the power hierarchy, where women have historically been excluded. Their work is promising, as it aims to strip masculinities theory of its tendency to essentialize male behavior, and explicitly confronts power inequalities and hierarchies.

Exploring analyses of power and masculinities is a crucial step towards opening up power and dominance discourse in relation to men -- yet it does not relieve feminist legal theorists of rising to the challenge to ask the man question in their research, if we are to fully understand the social constructs that reinforce continuing gender inequality and gender-based violence.

Engaging men to bear the burden of men's acts against women

As we come closer to integrating masculinities into feminist analysis, we must also consider what role men must play when it comes to feminism. How can men help feminists to achieve gender equality and end the violence towards women and children? Can the inclusion of men shift feminist analysis into more effective and powerful directions?

Shira Tarrant, author of Men and Feminism, has encouraged the idea that men can be feminist allies, and she regards feminism as an inclusive movement. In a recent inverview, Tarrant noted that,

“[i]t’s one thing to say, ‘women shouldn’t be raped.’ It’s a different challenge to say, ‘men need to stop raping’. . . Really shifting our cultural politics and our unspoken systems of advantage means that people with unearned privilege and power must be willing to examine our own roles in perpetuating the problems. We also must be willing to create solutions. The burden of this work can’t fall entirely on those who already carry the burden of the problem.”

Some masculinities researchers and theorists have already begun to reformulate perspectives on violence and rape by incorporating what we know about masculinities into existing theoretical frameworks. Alan D. Berkowitz was among the first to develop protocols and programs focusing on men’s responsibility for preventing sexual assault. Berkowitz argues that men must take responsibility for preventing sexual assault, because most assaults are perpetrated by men against women, children, and other men. Berkowitz argues that an exploration of masculinities and male role expectations are central to such rape prevention programs. Berkowitz notes that,

“[i]t is the experience of masculinity itself—how men think of themselves as men—that creates the psychological and cultural environment that leads men to rape … this environment is perpetuated through men’s relationships and expectations of each other.”

A recent collaborative study by seven masculinities researchers from around the world, Ending gender-based violence: A call for global action to involve men, confronts the issue of power and men’s violence. The study focuses on masculinities and socially constructed gender roles in relationship to violence, and aims to engage men globally to “see it as their duty to demolish the patriarchal structures they themselves live in.” Of note, the study describes how men’s violence is socially cultivated and promoted globally, thus violence prevention requires discourse on masculinities and men’s experiences. The study explicitly aims “to name men” instead of speaking about “violence” generically—hoping to develop gender consciousness among men.

These studies illustrate a developing discourse on the proactive involvement of men in feminism, particularly addressing the questions of power and who should bear the burden of preventing gender-based violence and rape. These studies do not, however, promise that men will participate in these new forums. The remaining question is how to engage men into masculinities discourse, and how to encourage men to understand the effects of masculinities constructs in their day-to-day life.

In search of "new ways of doing masculinity"

Tarrant has noted that though sexism and men’s violence against women are normalized in pop culture, as the following clip "Tough Guise: Violence, Mediat & the Crisis in Masculinity" illustrates:

Despite the bleak outlook of masculinities and media, Tarrant argues that pop culture can become a tool for change by encouraging “new ways of doing masculinity” or envisioning manhood in new ways. She notes that the work of Rafael Casal, Byron Hurt and the Masculinity Project are promising movements towards redefining what it means to be a man, particularly for adolescent men who are in a critical stage of developing their sense of masculinities.

Another model for re-forumulating masculinities through pop culture is The Men’s Story Project-- an artistic community forum devoted to collecting the stories of men on the issues of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism and violence. The following clip is artist Galen Peterson's work, "The Violence of Masculinity," featured on The Men's Story Project. It is a good example of re-defining masculinities through storytelling or narratives as a means to understand the relationship between violence and men:

A call to "ask the man question" & engage men in feminist discourse

While both masculinities and feminism have been theorized about on parallel spectrums for decades, we are reaching a critical theoretical stage where a collision is inevitable. As Dowd pointed out, asking the man question can only help feminist analysis, but only so long as we demand more critical analyses of power. Feminist legal theorists must not only ask the man question, but should seek ways to engage men fully into feminist discourse such that we can understand power and inequality from a perspective yet uncharted.

Words hurt.

Although many of us are taught as children that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us, words really do hurt. When words are used for the express purpose of denigrating an individual because they are a member of a certain class or group, it is clearly immoral. But what about terms that were once clearly offensive but have transformed in meaning to such a degree that many people who use the terms have no idea that they were once used in a pejorative sense? Does the intention of the speaker govern the moral analysis, or do the effects on the listener?

I want to at least scratch the surface of these questions. I believe that effectively challenging people to think about the harmful effects the words they use depends on responding effectively to the natural human desire to justify our own behavior. I must admit that when this topic came up in a recent class discussion, the very convincing arguments against using words such as “lame” and “suck” really threw me into a state of cognitive dissonance. I felt that almost instinctual need to protect myself from self-reproach. “I use these words all the time, and I’m a sensitive person, so there must be some reason why it's OK.” As I will discuss, I do believe that the use of those terms is wrong, but it took some reflection to realize it. Recounting my reflection process may elucidate a common potential response to arguments against using words with offensive alternative meanings, thereby allowing proponents of change to better formulate counter-arguments.

As I attempted to justify my use of terms like “lame” to refer to something bad, I first looked to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a moral theory which asserts that the morally correct choice among all alternatives is the one which brings about the most happiness for all affected beings, balanced against any pain or suffering caused by the action. I considered the following hypothetical:

Imagine a world where everyone used the word "X" to refer to a class of people in a pejorative sense. For example, when a group of school kids saw a member of that class, they would walk over and call them an “X” in order to insult them. Utilitarian theory comes in myriad different forms, but most would hold that this use of the word “X” is morally wrong. No matter how you choose to define and measure pleasure and pain, the pleasure the kids got out of using the term is likely quite small in comparison to the pain inflicted on the person referred to as an “X.” Therefore, the use of the term “X” in this way is immoral, according to utilitarian theory.

Now, compare the situation in the above hypothetical with the following:

The word “X” was once used to derogatively refer to a class of people, but a great deal of time has passed and now no one uses the term to derogatively refer to members of that class, or any other class. In this hypothetical world, no one in fact is even aware that the word was ever used as a pejorative term for a particular group. Even the group of people who were once referred to as "Xs" are unaware that the word has any negative connotation. The word now has a completely different meaning, and its offensive past has been forgotten.

In this situation, it seems to me that this use of the word “X” would not be immoral. Because no one is aware that the word has a pejorative meaning, nobody's feelings are hurt by the use of the word. There is therefore no harm to weigh against the pleasure experienced in using the word for its new purpose, whatever it may be.

But how helpful is this second hypothetical in determining how to behave in the real world? I think the answer depends on whether there are any words in our lexicon that approach matching the condition of the hypo in that they once had a pejorative use, but that use has been almost completely forgotten. (Obviously, if society as a whole completely forgot that a word once had a certain use, that use could not be identified, because we wouldn’t have any record of it. If we did, it wouldn’t truly be forgotten.) One example I found that is somewhat close is the use of the terms “master” and “slave” in computer parts. A computer with more than one hard drive for example, will have a “master” drive that runs the operating system, and a slave drive that is used only for storage. I do not contend that most people have forgotten about the use of the terms “master” and “slave” to refer to the institution of slavery. I think the example is similar to the hypothetical only in the sense that, intuitively, 92% of poll respondents did not find the use of those words in the computer context offensive because that context is so far removed from that of human slavery. Because the context is so different, it probably never even occurred to most people that using the terms "master" and "slave" is offensive.

Maybe "lame" is another good example, or maybe it isn't- I would be very interested in your comments. Although I wanted to avoid personalizing this post too much, I have to say that I never even thought about the possibility that the way I use “lame” (to refer to anything undesirable) would register with some people as a derogatory reference to people with physical disabilities. Amazingly, I have heard and seen the word “lame” used to refer to a disabled person many times before, but I never linked that use of the word to the way I used it, probably because my use was for a different purpose. Intuitively, there are probably many other people who use the term “lame” simply to refer to something being bad who are oblivious of the relationship between the word and its once common pejorative function.

Ultimately, I think that the real world is much different from my hypothetical one in that there are very few, if any, words with an all but forgotten offensive use that are now used for a different purpose. Utilitarianism demands that all suffering be taken into account when deciding whether an action is right or wrong. Use of the word “lame” would seem to have the potential to hurt the feelings not only of any disabled person who heard the word, but anyone who is cognizant of the connection between the word and its potential derogatory meaning. The harm in hearing the word “lame” being bandied about may be easier to appreciate if you imagine having a disabled family member or friend. “Suck” is another word commonly used to refer to something bad, but doesn’t it also connote something much more offensive and denigrative of women? Returning again to utilitarianism- is the pleasure we take in using these terms as slang really worth the potential negative consequences of hurt feelings or the perpetuation of misogyny?

I have certainly not delved deeply into this topic. I have not addressed the reappropriation of offensive terms by members of a group to whom the terms applied. I have also not discussed all the possible ways in which one might defend their use of terms like “suck” or “lame.” For example, utilitarianism does not traditionally factor in the intent of an actor in determining whether his or her action is right or wrong, but most people find intentional wrongdoing more blameworthy than unintentional. Nevertheless, I think the utilitarianism poses a strong challenge to the use of terms that may seem harmless but stem from an offensive past. Utilitarianism forces us to take into account, and be sensitive to, the pain that these words may still inflict. Given the multitude of other ways to express ourselves, it seems like the potential harm outweighs the good. If people can be convinced of that fact, we might be on our way to building a more caring and sensitive society.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Precious: an inner-city horror story

“A pathetic ghetto girl”

Precious comes to theaters November 6. The film is based on Sapphire’s novel, Push, and directed by Lee Daniels. To watch the film’s trailer, click here.

Film critic, Duane Byrge calls Precious an “inner-city horror story.” Its protagonist is “a pathetic ghetto girl . . . [c]alled ‘Precious,’ who is “illiterate, overweight, emotionally abused by her deadbeat mother” and “impregnated twice by her father.” To read the rest of Byrge’s review, click here.

The film won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival and has earned rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.

“An ideal eye opener for white middle-class suburbia”

In The New Yorker, Jenna Krajeski points out that Precious depicts a world “so often invisible to the mainstream media.” One blogger praised the film for “deal[ing] with many issues … common in the [African American] community,” including “absentee fathers, teen pregnancy, parental abuse and extreme dysfunction, obesity, idealized images and beauty standards, sexuality, self love and hate, and colorism.” To read the full blog entry, click here.’s customer reviews of Push echo Krajeski’s observation. One customer read the novel with her “feminist book club.” In her review, she called it “an ideal eye-opener for White, middle-class suburbia.” Another customer wrote, “If we remain as deaf as most of the white people in this book, heaven help us.” To read more reviews of Push, click here.

“I didn’t want to exploit black people”

Overwhelmingly, reviewers have praised Precious and Push for their “brutal honesty” Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Precious’s hard-luck story sings with poetic beauty and resonates with ugly truth.” To read the full review, click here.

Other reviewers are less impressed with the film's depiction of the “ugly truth” of urban poverty. One viewer criticized the film for “focus[ing] on depicting the girl’s horrific situation” rather “than on presenting a rounded picture of Harlem life.” Another viewer slammed the film for “pandering to give a typical film festival audience what the script writer/director thinks it wants” (reinforcing insulting stereotypes). To read these reviews, click here.

Responding to criticism that his film reinforces negative stereotypes, Lee Daniels says,

To be honest, I was embarrassed to show this movie at Cannes. I didn’t want to exploit black people. And I wasn’t sure I wanted white French people to see our world. … But because of Obama, it’s now O.K. to be black. I can share that voice. I don’t have to lie. I’m proud of where I come from. And I wear it like a shield. ‘Precious’ is part of that.
To read more of Daniels’s comments, click here.

“Education through fiction”

Precious exposes audiences to serious social problems, like poverty, racism, sexism, incest, and illiteracy (just to name a few). A film could be the ideal tool for educating the public about these problems. John W. Erwin, the director of The Stories Exchange Project, writes,

I think that if there is some problem, and you want people to understand this problem, then it’s much better to tell some stories about it than to use just cold facts. I hope that these stories will reach people’s hearts. This is always true of stories. Using stories is the best way to educate people and to get them to understand.

On the other hand, Precious could reinforce negative stereotypes. Studies indicate that “fiction encourages students to shape opinions and their opinion-forming skills.” For instance, one study found a direct link between popular movies and high school students’ opinions on genome research. To read the study, click here. In his forthcoming book, Real Role Models, Joah Spearman discusses how the media “regularly hold[s] up African-Americans, both real and fictionalized, as representations of the entire race.”

Will audiences be able to distinguish Precious’s “horrific situation” from typical Harlem life? One can only hope.

Precious comes to theaters next month. I suspect it will be well-directed and entertaining. It will probably go on to win more awards, maybe even an Oscar. But I’m wary of its pedagogical value.

I agree with Spearman. When I taught high school English, I made the mistake of assigning Push to sheltered suburban students. Like Erwin, I thought the book would "educate people and to get them to understand." Precious's story got their attention, but it also reinforced damaging stereotypes. Many of my students assumed that every African American teenager experiences poverty, illiteracy, incest, and the list goes on... When they reviewed the book, several students thanked me for assigning it because "Now they understood what it was like to be black" (and similar comments). I dropped the book from my curriculum the following year.

If Precious is going to be an “eye-opener for White, middle-class suburbia,” then we need make sure the "horror story" isn't the only thing we're seeing.