Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Success is not sexy

I often play the game "Would you rather?" with friends. It's a simple game, where you give the players two options to choose from and hopefully you learn something funny or scandalous about them. In a recent game played, I asked a male friend "Would you rather date Lana Lang or ....." before I could even finish the sentence he stopped me and said, "Rory Gilmore!" I was shocked by this. Growing up watching both shows I would have never imagined someone, let alone a guy, making the comparison. Lana Lang is a character of Smallville, or better known as the high school sweetheart of Superman. In the show she is the beautiful, popular girl at school whom all the boys can't seem to stop fighting over. She is petite, sweet, innocent, and always needs someone, in most cases the young Superman, to save her. Rory Gilmore, on the other hand, is a character in the Gilmore girls. She is a little more "plain looking," and although she too has had many male suitors fight over her, she is known for her brains and her wit. Growing up I appreciated both characters. However, most guys I knew didn't. I couldn't get a guy to watch the Gilmore Girls with me if my life depended on it. And since most of my guy friends already watched Smallville, I couldn't get them to stop talking about how "hot" Lana Lang was if my life depended on it. Needless to say, I was shocked by the recent comparison between the two characters.

My first question, "Do you NOT think Lana is pretty... is she just not your type?" His response, "She is beautiful. Of course, she is my type. She is every one's type." My second question, "So why Rory?" His response, "She goes to Yale. She is smart. She can take care of herself, and that means she can probably take care of me." Clearly, he didn't mean take care of him in the "traditional" sense, which includes cooking, cleaning, and raising the children, but he meant someone who could support him, in every way, including financially. I guess this shouldn't shock me. Talking to many men in the legal field or on in law school, I've heard many of them say they want to marry an equal, someone they can talk to and respect, and someone who appreciates higher education and or ambition. But I never heard of any of them say that they want to be taken care of. This was a refreshing first?

Walking away from this "would you rather" game, I thought to myself: Are we now moving to the direction where men want and expect to be taken care of financially? Sure, I have heard of sugar mamas, which often refers to distinguished older women taking care of younger less distinguished men. But are men, who are equally distinguished and equal in age, looking for a woman to support them?

In a recent NY Times article, Keeping the Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment, Katrin Behold explored the recent development of women taking on high powered positions and its effects on romance. Despite the "liberal-minded" trend that seems to be taking over my male friends, it seems that men are still afraid of a powerful woman and want to hang on to, at least to the appearance of, traditional gender roles.
Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on the 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match and take over men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.
As the author notes, it is getting harder for successful women to find a mate and if they have already found one they must keep up a facade of traditional gender roles. For example, Anne-Laure Kiechel, an investment banker in Paris, who makes fives times more than her boyfriend, pays for all the major expenses, including vacations. Nevertheless, her boyfriend, insists that he pay for things in public to avoid looking like a "gigolo." Timothy Eustis,a proud stay-at-home dad, says that he and his wife, who is a senior manager at the French lingerie brand Etam, "both" cherish "those little traditions" to keep the romantic spark alive.

While it is understandable that one would have a feeling of inadequacy when comparing one's self to friends or family members who seem to be more successful then you (a college roommate recently announced she is engaged and I immediately started thinking of my failure to even have a boyfriend) it is interesting to note how sensitive the male ego seems to be,
It is amazing how even many liberal-minded men end up having sexual and emotional difficulties being with more obviously successful women... The male ego can be a more fragile thing than the female ego, which is used to a regular battering and has hence developed a sense of humor!
Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of "Money in Couples," suggest that men who earn less are insecure. They feel socially vulnerable, going against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes, and personally vulnerable, as failures.

How are women who want success and romance suppose to deal with these insecure men? Ms. Domscheit-Berg, of the European Women's Management Development International Network, suggests: 1) leave your nice car at home on the first date, 2) find your life partner in your 20s, before you become too successful, and 3) go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.

For my own sake as well as the sake of all my female friends in law or whom have a successful and bright future ahead of them, I really hope that the trend is moving to more liberal-minded men, like my friend in my "would you rather"game. I hope the 21st century is ready for the 21st century woman, because whether men like it or not they will have to deal with women who can support themselves, and if they want, support you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The final cut

In the past decade I have noticed that the number of cosmetic plastic surgery procedures have grown exponentially. In fact, it seems that every few years a new procedure is the must-have surgery. I have seen people in my neighborhood get everything from breast implants to eyelash implants. The most recent trend seems to be female genital cosmetic surgery. One type of these procedures is known as labiaplasty, which reduces the size of the labia. The labiaplatsy procedure was traditionally used for patients that had damage to the labia as a result of natural childbirth. However, this procedure is now being marketed to women under the guise of “vaginal rejuvenation,” a way of tightening the vagina.

Another procedure that has gained much popularity is hymenoplasty, which is also known as hymen reconstruction surgery. This procedure creates a “hymen replacement.” To my knowledge, I was not able to find a single health-related reason for this operation.

So what is the motivation behind these surgeries?

As with most cosmetic procedures, there can be many underlying reasons that are both personal and private, which can often times make any analysis on this topic very difficult. However, in a recent interview with Women’s eNews, two top surgeons suggested that negative comments from male partners are the number one reason women request these surgeries.

Why am I not surprised? Throughout history, in an effort to maintain control and dominance over women, men have created a multitude of justifications for their subordination of women. But why do we allow men to create such fiction? We cannot stand by and allow women to resort to such procedures to remedy a feeling of imperfection that is truly “man”-made. In fact, in some countries where males have placed a high value on a woman’s virginity, women are forced to secretly get hymenoplasty performed just to stay alive. I find this disgusting. We need to create awareness and find support through stronger solidarity among all women.

Women Wednesday - final edition

During the course of this class, we have discussed the intersection between feminism and the law. For the last edition of Women Wednesday, I wanted to call attention to a special organization which has been affecting feminism through the law for the past decade: the Tahirih Justice Center.

The Tahirih Justice Center works to provide free legal representation to women and girls to protect them from gender-based violance and abuse in cases of domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation, human sex trafficking, and more. Tahirih uses pro bono resources to assist immigrant women seeking justice in the United States with a combination of legal services, advocacy, and public education programs. Tahirih also provides holistic social and medical service referrals to help these women become self-sufficient.

Since the start of this organization in 1997, through direct services and referrals, Tahirih has assisted over 9,000 women and children flee abuse with a 99% success record. Financial donations will enable the Tahirih Justice Center to continue protecting and providing care for vulnerable immigrant women and girls. You can make donations here.

For more information please visit:

Or watch a youtube account of victim's speaking out about how this organization helped them:

Friday, December 3, 2010

(De)Parting Words

After reading this tragic story and not knowing how to convey my sadness and disgust in words, I would like to share with all of you the words of man who says what I cannot.

I can only hope that the justice system adapts to help women like her.

A choose your own gender adventure

When I say "Choose your own gender," it probably brings to mind thoughts about transgender people, other gender benders, and hopefully the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of some of our childhoods. Despite the implied suggestions of the title, this post is not about transgender people specifically. Instead, I want to encourage the application of "Choose your own gender" to people of all genders, with special encouragement to people who have not transitioned among genders and who may not think this statement applies to them.

In dissecting feminist legal theory in class, we have read from viewpoints supporting widely diverse standpoints on the origin of gender roles, gender or gender typed behavior. Some feminists believe gender results from a cumulative experience of one's many intersecting identities, others argue that gender exists only as inequalities in a dominant power structure. Many academics and law makers view gender as inherent from birth or socially inherent from the contexts of the environments in which people are raised.

The relevance of the origin of gender roles is important and necessary to the consciousness raising process of analyzing the intersections of gender and feminism. I would like to use a transgender lens to emphasize how the matter of choice is often undermined because of the overwhelming social and academic focus on origin.

Transgender and other gender non-conforming persons, as living examples that gender is neither a result of birth assignment, body nor of socialization, help bring attention to the implications of choice in gender. Transgender people recognize that some gender role or gender they have been told should fit them, does not actually fit how they feel or personally identify and they exercise choice to change this. For most folks, this is a big life process (a transition). The application of this same kind of intention and choice can be applied to all people however, regardless of gender and to much smaller and more everyday degrees than entire gender transitions.

Cisgender men and women can ask themselves everyday "Am I doing this male-gender-roled behavior because I think I have to" or "Am I just responding this way because that's how I think women should respond?" Each time a person asks them self where a behavior originates from personally, they create the power within themselves to set intention behind that behavior and reclaim it for themselves, or discard it entirely. We all choose what kind of men we are, what kind of women we are or what kind of transperson we are, and so on. Those choices affect the social fabric around us. For example, if I choose to be the kind of man who does not stand up against sexism amongst my male peers, then that continues to perpetuate the social cycles of misogyny around me.

Exercising active choice around one's gender and how to express it is a subversive act. It is subversive because it takes power and control over an identity away from the dominant social power and returns it to the individual. The more personalized and intentional all our gender narratives become, the more likely it is that our laws will eventually develop towards recognizing such diversity.

Australia is well on its way, becoming the first country to issue a gender neutral birth certificate. This was a huge leap for intersex and transgender communities, as well as all folks who will benefit from less stringent social gender controls. This also speaks to the abilities of the law to evolve alongside the social evolutions of the community it represents.

I hope that as this semester ends, more of my classmates will call themselves feminists and that all of us will approach our genders with little more intention, analyzing and personalization. Despite all the differences among the many kinds of feminism, I think the world needs more feminists of all genders; feminist women (feminist women blog list), feminist men (feminist men's groups), feminist queer and trans folks, and most importantly, feminist children (feminist kids books list).

Thursday, December 2, 2010 say "feminist" like it's a bad thing

Expanding on Betty's awesome "Feminism 101 is not class" post where she mentioned people's general discomfort with the term "feminist", I have to say I've gotten some pretty ridiculous reactions when I mention I'm taking this class.

"So you basically blame guys for everything?"


"A feminist class?! Isn't that super extreme?"

or my personal favorite:

"It's like women's studies? So they teach you to bake cakes, right?" (Everyone is a comedian)

Basically any feminist stereotype they have ever heard.

So, of course, I have to explain (sigh). That no, it's not about hating men, it's about gender equality. Equal pay for the same job. Not bashing "traditional values", but offering women meaningful choices in how they want to live their lives. Sharing childrearing responsibility. Etc.


Suddenly, their attitude changes. They might not agree with every type of legislative action various feminists propose, but "feminism" is no longer this "extremist" label to them. Instead, they are willing to have a mature discussion about these important issues.

I don't understand why people have this gut reaction that feminism itself is one"extreme viewpoint." There are a broad spectrum of feminist beliefs just as there are a broad range of democratic/republican viewpoints.

Regardless, I am grateful for everything I've learned in this class and look forward to changing people's perception of what feminist theory is, one bad cooking joke at a time.

Beauty standards and victim blaming

Women put huge amounts of efforts into our appearance. We pluck, wax, shave, paint, polish, shop, exercise, starve, puke, pore over fashion magazines, and go under the knife to achieve the “perfect” body and style. Debate has raged for years among feminists, in women’s magazines, and in the media over how much of this is women’s choice and how much of this is women’s response to the pressures of a sexist culture.

However, I am more interested in how and to whom it matters if women are responding to the pressure of sexism rather than their own individual choices. I argue that the criticism of women who give in to sexist beauty standards is simply another form of victim blaming, which women already experience too much of.

Virtually all of us, male or female, feminist or not, are influenced by our culture when choosing how to present ourselves. When we choose to put on a suit rather than sweats, a thawb rather than a sari, a keffiyah rather than a tzitzit, normal clothes rather than bubbles or a carousel, we are influenced, usually without even thinking about it, by what is an acceptable appearance in our culture.

Very few people would judge an Emirati man for not bucking cultural norms and showing up at work in a sari. In fact, they would judge him if he did so.

However, women are judged for not bucking cultural norms, for worrying about their weight or obsessing over style, for being girly, shallow, a tool of the patriarchy. On the other hand, women are also judged even more for bucking cultural norms, for refusing to shave or diet or wear make-up, for being fat, lesbian, a man-hating feminist. Women are put in a double bind- don’t conform and be judged, conform and be judged anyway.

This double bind is not restricted to beauty and is in fact characteristic of the double binds women face. Work outside the home and you’re a bad mother; work inside the home and you don’t have a “real” job. Have sex and you’re a slut; don’t have sex and you’re a prude.

Underlying these double binds is an inability to distinguish between the situation and the character of the situated. (Judith Baer Our Lives Before the Law 63-67 (1999)) Baer identified the confusion between the situation and the situated in the context of violence against women- men abuse women, therefore women are weak or wish to be abused. (Id.) However, it also applies in the context of beauty pressures on women- women are expected to be beautiful, therefore women are shallow. A woman’s decision to wear make-up, buy nice clothes, diet, or get plastic surgery is taken as a sign of her character (her shallowness), rather than her situation (a culture which favors attractive women.)

Also underlying these double binds is a tendency for responsibility to flow downhill. (Id. at 6-8). Responsibility for preventing rape flows downhill from the men who commit it to the women who must evade it. (Id. at 8) Responsibility for defective breast implants flows downhill from the companies who produced and marketed them to the women who bought them. (Id. at 64). Responsibility for fighting sexist beauty standards flows downhill from the corporations that put millions into promoting it and the individuals who shame or criticize women’s appearance, to the women who are responding to those pressures.

None of this means that women do not make choices about how to present themselves- it is just that these choices are structured. (Joan Williams Unbending Gender 37-39 (2000)) Society pressures women overtly and covertly to take care of their looks, through magazines, television shows, and movies that glamorize the process of the makeover and show primarily skinny, beautiful women and through family, friends, and strangers who express “concern” about women’s weight or hairy legs. Women make choices but they make them with a (conscious of unconscious) awareness of the rewards and punishments society attaches to them.

Some women choose to drop out of the beauty game, age naturally, and wear what they wish- and we should support their choices. Other women genuinely love pretty clothes and would choose them even without societal pressure- and we should support their choices too. Some women wish they could drop out but reluctantly choose to comply with female beauty standards to escape censure- and we should support their choices too, without blaming them for the accommodations they have made or pretending their choices are entirely free. The blame should be placed where it belongs- on those who restrict women’s choices in the first place.

5 reasons why sex worker’s rights matter for all of us

Feminists having conflicting views on sex work, ranging from the positive attitude of the feminist sex workers who pithily titled their anthology “Whores and Other Feminists” to the negative attitude of Andrea Dworkin who described her experience with prostitution as “gang rape punctuated by a money exchange.” However, feminists generally agree on sex worker’s right to be free from rape, physical violence, and harassment. In this post, I want to discuss why sex worker’s rights matter for all of us, whether or not we or our loved ones have ever been involved in sex work.

1. Because no one should be treated the way sex workers are treated
This is the most fundamental reason sex worker’s rights matter. No one should be gang raped at gun point and then told by a judge that what they suffered was merely “theft of services.” No one should hear a judge say that he would be "hard put" to give somebody a life sentence for picking them up, taking them to the woods, sexually assaulting them, and killing them. (Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can't Say That Can She? 79 (1992))*. No one should be an easy target for rape and murder because society doesn’t care or thinks they deserve it.

*This judge was actually explaining his light sentence in a homophobic murder case, but apparently saw a golden opportunity to take a swipe at sex workers as well.

2. Because of the risk of being accused of being a sex worker
The risk of being seriously accused of being a sex worker is rare for most women but does exist. It is a particular issue for women who are trans or black or both; black trans women frequently find themselves harassed by police as potential prostitutes for simply “walking while trans.” However, any women who violates female norms by going out too late at night (scroll to “curlygirl26”’s post) or carrying too many condoms may be targeted.

More common is the metaphorical accusation of being a sex worker. Women who dress the way they want, love sex too much, or marry someone “too” much older or wealthier than them risk having the “whore” label thrown at them. The stigmatization of sex workers becomes a useful tool for policing all women’s behavior.

3. Because of the risk of becoming a sex worker
Although pro and anti-sex work feminists disagree over whether forced and coerced prostitution is the norm or the exception, both sides agree that at least some sex workers do not voluntarily enter the profession. Sex workers may be trafficking victims or runaways from abusive homes desperate for a place to sleep or eat. Some may simply be people who cannot find other jobs due to sexism which pays women less and places the primary burden of raising and supporting children on them or due to transphobia, racism, sexism, classism, or ableism that makes finding and keeping jobs difficult. Whatever the reasons, as long as a significant number of sex workers aren’t in the job voluntarily, none of us can be confident that sex worker’s rights will not personally affect us or our loved ones.

4. Because our governments are complicit in the exploitation and abuse of sex workers
It’s fairly well known that the Japanese government during World War II set up brothels of Chinese and Korean “comfort women”, who the government had forcibly trafficked into prostitution. It’s less well known that the U.S. “liberators” also used "comfort women" supplied by Japan after its defeat and that the U.S. military and South Korean governments have continued to exploit Asian and Eastern European prostitutes in South Korea into the present day.

Less overtly, government efforts to prevent prostitution often simply end up harming the safety and health of prostitutes instead. Cambodia has recently come under fire from Human Rights Watch for arbitrarily arresting, beating, and raping prostitutes. Unfortunately, this type of police abuse of prostitutes is hardly restricted to Cambodia, as reports by sex workers and LGBT rights organizations in the U.S. attest.

Even when the law is applied “correctly”, without corruption, it can pressure prostitutes into remaining in prostitution when they do not wish to do so. Many prostitutes struggle to escape prostitution because they are dogged by their criminal record. This includes prostitutes who were actually trafficking victims- laws permitting such victims to erase their records are relatively recent and not universal. Then there are cases like Sara Kruzen, who was jailed for killing the man who trafficked her into child prostitution. Trafficking victims who try to escape must weigh the danger of remaining in prostitution against the danger of landing in jail, which carries its own risk of physical abuse and sexual assault.

5. Because discrimination against one group of women puts all of us at risk
Underlying the abuse of sex workers are the same sexist stereotypes that are used to justify abuse against all women. She’s had sex with men for money before, she must have consented to do so this time. She wasn’t raped, she’s just mad she didn’t get paid. It’s too bad she was raped, but what did she expect standing on a street corner all night/going to a hotel with a man/soliciting for men on Craig’s list.

Twist these justifications just a little and they easily apply to non-sex workers. She’s had consensual sex with dates before, she must have consented to sex this time. She wasn’t raped, she’s just mad he didn’t call her back. It’s too bad she was raped, but what did she expect going to that part of town/going out that late at night/letting him into her apartment/going on a date with someone she barely knew.

Justifications for abusing sex workers presume that once women cross some line of “correct” behavior, they are acceptable targets, and that line can move. As long as it is acceptable to abuse some women, all women are at risk.

Who can resist a man who sings like a woman?

The New York Times (“NYT”) Sunday Magazine recently published an article entitled “Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?” The article profiles Philippe Jaroussky, a French opera singer who has gathered a dedicated following because he is a fully-grown man who possesses a beautiful, “female” singing voice. Below is a video of Jaroussky singing a Handel piece.

Jaroussky sings in a countertenorial voice, a voice that is “a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords” that “continually teeter[s] on the knife edge between creepy and sublime.” Jarrousky himself has stated that the voice carries an “element of repulsion.” Though understandable, I was disappointed by the subtextual gender-normative value judgments in the NYT piece. In this blog post I will try to move beyond a gender-normative perspective by discussing the historical and present significance of the countertenorial voice through a feminist analysis.

First, I’d like to tie this topic back to a previous blog post topic that I have made about how the progenitors of glam rock during the 1960s and 1970s used music (and its presentation) to push the boundaries of gender stereotypes. I think that Jarrousky’s music does the same thing. He has stated that it is potentially ridiculous for a grown man to be singing in a countertenorial voice. On the one hand, his statement could be understood from a biological standpoint. When men go through puberty, their voices become deeper, and in this sense, it may be "ridiculous" for a grown man to sing like a girl or a choirboy because of the biological improbability that a man would be able to do so.

However, I also think that Jarrousky meant that a man singing in the countertenorial voice was ridiculous when judged by societal values. In this sense, Jarrousky is pushing gender boundaries much like male glam rockers who flirted w/ female clothing, imagery, and make-up also seemed ridiculous by greater societal standards. Interestingly, the “ridiculous” juxtaposition of the grown male body and the pristine female voice in present times seems to have embodied certain societal values in older European cultures. The NYT article states that much pre-19th-century opera and Shakespearean comedy is based on the premise that women find as desirable boys who may or may not be girls. In this context, I think that the countertenorial voice is commendable for both its historic and modern gender-boundary-pushing capabilities.

The historical popularity of the countertenorial voice, however, came at a price for those who wished to master its gloried status. The history of the countertenor is shocking because of the sexual discrimination and oppression that its predecessors faced for the sake of art. According to the NYT, the countertenor has its roots in the castrato – a male singer who was castrated before he reached puberty for the purpose of preserving his pure, high voice. This practice supposedly originated from St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians that “women should be silent in church.” Moreover, castrati often came from impoverished families who sold them like slaves. They were not allowed to marry but were objectified by women as non-reproductive lovers. Once they lost the quality of the countertenorial voice, their lives were ruined.

Sexually oppressive and violent practices premised on societal values of beauty and aesthetics are nothing new. For example, footbinding was practiced in China for over one thousand years, possibly for a number of reasons, but all for the sake of an idealization of female beauty. In the modern globalized culture, tall and thin models are held as the standard of female beauty. This may result in bulimic or anorexic syndromes for models who perpetuate the standard, as well as for people in the general population who wish to achieve this standard.

The sexual oppression that castrati faced, however, is striking because of the role-reversal of men as the objects of oppression by both men and women. One writer has stated that castrati, like women, were simply objects in a world defined by hegemonic male power. I think this is an apt insight, and the metaphor of the gilded cage symbolizing female captivity also seems to apply to castrati. The gilded bars may be beautiful and ornate, and the castrati may be placed on an elevated pedestal in high culture, but if we step back and view the bars in totality, we see that the castrati are nevertheless constrained by a cage both on a personal and on a societal/structural level.

Relating this back to the modern-day popularity of the countertenor, I think knowing the foundation of the countertenor is useful for explaining the historical reasons why some may find the idea of a grown man singing with a girlish voice jarring, to say the least. Hopefully, however, the countertenor will not be constrained by the more disturbing aspects of its past, and by applying feminist perspectives to the countertenorial voice, we can appreciate the beauty and quality of the voice without resorting to a gender-normative framework.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Temporary wives and the consequences

I came across another example of legal double- standards between men and women.

In Iran, men and women can enter into a "temporary marriage" for an agreed period of time if some money is paid to the woman. Men can have up to four legal wives under Islamic law plus an unlimited number of these “temporary” wives, but women can only be married to one man at a time.

This is a story of one of those "temporary wives" and the consequences of this double- standard.