Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Misogyny in video games

I’ve been playing video games my entire life. I’ve been a fan of many games beginning with the original Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, and the like. Many of these games bring back early 90’s nostalgia, but beginning in college (the early 2000’s, that is), I started to notice a more misogynistic tone in video games. While the early games are certainly not innocent when it comes to reinforcing gender stereotypes (e.g. the common “rescuing the Princess” story line), games have become increasingly more sexist and violent - particularly against women. After a bit of research it became clear that too many video games today either sexualize female characters or involve overt acts of violence against women; video games are a popular media that is being used to vindicate the sexualization and abuse of women.

The widely popular Grand Theft Auto is known for its violent themes, but it made headlines when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas simulated violence against women. In this game, a player can make a character have sex with a prostitute, beat her up, kill her, and take his money back. Having sex with a prostitute replenishes the character’s life but drains his money, thus encouraging both the solicitation of sex and the beating/killing of the prostitute afterwards. Further, the character calls the prostitute a "bitch" repeatedly after sex and while killing her.

Other games are not as overtly violent against women as they are sexist and exploitative of female sexuality. In Killer Instinct, the scantily clad female character “B. Orchid” has a move where she can kill her opponent by unzipping her top and flashing her breasts at them (though away from the camera). Further, the popular game Dead or Alive is best known for its young, sexy female characters. In Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball the entire cast is wearing extremely revealing string bikinis while playing beach volleyball. What’s more, the characters can be controlled to move into sexually suggestive positions and a zoom feature allows players to zoom in on the characters’ bodies. The female characters in all of these games have Barbi-esque figures with young girlish faces, tiny waists, and impossibly large breasts.

The most egregious example of violence against women in video gaming is the Japanese game RapeLay. Though it may be hard to believe, this game is actually based on the rape, sexual torture, and stalking of young girls. RapeLay begins with a subway scene in which the character’s objective is to grope and molest a young girl on the subway platform. From there, the player is enabled to stalk the girl and her sister, rape them repeatedly, capture them, torture them, and ultimately make them his sex slaves. Players can select which girl they wish to rape and choose from a number of scenes as to where the rape will take place. As play continues, “friends” can join in on the sexual abuse. The game even allows the character to impregnate a girl and encourage her to have an abortion. Though RapeLay never made it into stores in the United States, illegal copies still remain available on the internet.

In June of this year the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass'n, holding that a California law prohibiting the sale of "violent video games" to minors violated the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia contended that video games are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, and that minors have their own First Amendment rights to access these games just like their adult counterparts. Justice Scalia then concluded that the state had failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between violent video games and violent behavior by children. While I am an advocate of free speech, I find it hard to believe that exposing children to these interactive games won’t affect how they will grow up to treat women. Indeed, violence against women is a pandemic and it doesn’t take much to find the manifestations of this problem. I can’t help but ask the perennial question: Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?

The images of sexualized women and sexual violence that are provided to young people and adults alike via gaming serve to endorse a sort of interactive misogyny that, I believe, only normalizes this behavior. While adults may be at liberty to chose from an array of violent, sexist, and generally distasteful material (and there is plenty to choose from), misogyny does not need yet another audience in today’s youth.

Family and acceptance

I recently the Bodenheimer Lecture on Family Law at UC Davis delivered by Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, professor of law at University of Iowa. Professor Onwuachi-Willig examines the Rhinelander v. Rhinelander case of 1925 to explore race relations in the United States. Particularly, she wanted to impress upon the audience the importance of expanding our normative notions of family. She explains that it is detrimental to racial minorities, especially African American females, to perpetuate an understanding of family as mono-racial and heterosexual. I believe she is correct; and I additionally believe that such notions of family are inconvenient and even injurious to members of the LGBT community.

In Rhinelander v. Rhinelander, an extremely wealthy white man from one of New York's elite families (Leonard) sued his wife (Alice) for an annulment based on fraud. Leonard claimed that Alice had misrepresented her race (she was a black woman), and that he only married her was because he believed her to be of Caucasian decent. Legend has it, however, that the two were actually madly in love and that Leonard's family, particularly his father, pressured him to annul the wedding. In fact, that an all-white male jury ended up ruling in favor of Alice suggests to many scholars today that the jury simply bought the love story. For instance, there was evidence that Leonard frequently visited with Alice's black family in the lower-income areas of New York. After a quiet wedding, he moved to a modest apartment to live with Alice in relative secrecy, foregoing the extravagant announcements and ceremonies most men of his stature were due. He was obviously and simply in love. Although Alice won the lawsuit (and the marriage was not annulled), the relationship was destined to dissolve. Leonard died shortly after, many say from love sickness, alone and estranged from all friends and family. Alice lived until she was 87, but "living" may be too generous a word, because she too was alone, and mostly poor throughout the rest of her life.

Professor Onwuachi-Willig situates her research in the field of race relations, focusing on interracial marriage as a vehicle for breaking psychological and social boundaries to move towards acceptance and equality. Canadian sociologist, Dorothy Smith, however, argues that the idealized family that Professor Onwuachi-Willig describes, includes a gendered division of labor (a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother) which devalues women. I believe that it additionally creates an expectation and an acceptance of gendered roles to the detriment of members of the LGBT community.

Sociologic theories that aligns biology with normative behavior have the potential to confuse an observed relationship with a causal relationship. Moreover, these assumptions tend to over-generalize, and to consequently marginalize those who do not fit the mold. For example, the iconic family as being headed by a married couple excludes single parent families, divorced couples, separations and cohabitation. In California, unfortunately, it also excludes single-sex couples. This demonstrates how norms in our society can affect laws and associated privileges and protections. Today, there are 1,138 rights and responsibilities reserved for opposite sex couples who can legally be married in the United States, including social security benefits, spousal insurance benefits through one’s employer, Medicare, and family reunification for asylum seekers. I know this because my partner and I received an IOU from the activist County Recorder in Yolo County for each of the rights.

A dismantling of normative notions of family would advantage racial minority, as Professor Onwuachi-Willig explains, and would additionally undo prescribed gender roles, that may constrict the potential of women to contribute to society. By abolishing a picture of normality, it would signal acceptance of that which was previously considered abnormal. This includes interracial marriages, same sex couples, and a variety of other loving relationships that deserve legal, social, and psychological security.

Monday, November 28, 2011

One Child Policy in China

A recent blog post centered around the issue of population growth in the world and how this growth, and its consequences, have impacted women. The issue I would like to discuss is the One Child Policy in the People's Republic of China, which was adopted in 1978 as a measure to limit population growth and alleviate the very poor social and economic conditions in that country. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine gives a good description of the one child policy:

"In 1979, the Chinese government embarked on an ambitious program of market reform following the economic stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. At the time, China was home to a quarter of the world's people, who were occupying just 7 percent of world's arable land. Two thirds of the population were under the age of 30 years, and the baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their reproductive years. The government saw strict population containment as essential to economic reform and to an improvement in living standards. So the one-child family policy was introduced. The policy consists of a set of regulations governing the approved size of Chinese families. These regulations include restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, and the spacing of children (in cases in which second children are permitted). The State Family Planning Bureau sets the overall targets and policy direction. Family-planning committees at provincial and county levels devise local strategies for implementation."

Since its adoption in 1979, the policy has been credited with having prevented some 300 million births, which is is undoubtedly an impressive achievement. When one also considers that the present-day population of mainland China (excluding the island of Taiwan) is well over 1.3 billion and that even this population is deemed to be far too high and a social and economic burden on China's natural resources and finances, one can appreciate the benefits of this one child policy. The fertility rate presently stands at 1.7.

Although this low fertility rate would, under normal conditions, be expected to work against any population increase, the improving state of health, with lower infant mortality rates and lower death rates, has exacerbated the overpopulation crisis. Although China has made enormous progress in the last 62 years (since 1949, when the country was unified under Maoist rule after many years of bloody civil war), GDP per capita (measured in purchasing power parity) stands at only $8,394 (90th in the world). Given this reality, the one child policy is perceived by the Chinese government and by many Chinese as a necessary, albeit harsh, measure. Perhaps less well known are the effects the policy has had on the female population of China; specifically, the female-male sex ratio. The 2010 census reports that there are 118.06 boys born for every 100 girls. This is far higher than the normal range, which is 105:100. Males are 51.27% of the population while females are 48.73%.

Many Chinese families prefer, for a multitude of reasons (e.g. cultural, financial), males over females and this is thought to be the primary cause of this extreme gender imbalance. Abortion and abandonment are very common and even infanticide has been known to occur. Many are worried about what this male-female imbalance could mean for China's future. This report from the BBC highlights the concerns widely expressed by many people:

"The gender imbalance could lead to social instability, the report by the State Population and Family Planning Commission warned...A traditional preference for boys, in a country with a one-child policy, is the root of the problem, the report says. Abortions on female foetuses are believed to be widespread as couples, particularly in rural areas, hope for a son who will look after them in their old age...Nationwide this means there will be 30 million more men than women by 2020, making it difficult for those particularly with low income or little education to find a wife, the report said. "The increasing difficulties men face finding wives may lead to social instability," the report said. The report went on: "We need to develop a 'movement to embrace girls'... and effectively contain the trend towards greater gender imbalances."

Preference for sons over daughters is rooted mainly in economic (but also in traditional) motives. In rural areas, sons are more able to provide help with farm work. In both rural and urban areas, sons are preferred because they are thought to be better able to provide financial support for parents in their old age. The relatively low number of female births is thought to be due to a number of factors, one of which is the availability of ultrasound, which enables parents to determine the sex of the fetus. Infanticide, abandonment of girls, and underreporting of female births are thought to be the three other major causes. In spite of the existence of these enduring problems, the one child policy continues. While its impact on China's overall socioeconomic development may be, all things considered, a positive (though even this is heavily disputed), its impact on China's female population is already causing serious problems, with many Chinese males unable to find partners and the resulting psychological issues arising as a result of this phenomenon. It remains to be seen what measures the Chinese government will take to mitigate the negative effects of its radical policies.

Meghan McCain: a true Republican feminist?

One of the most interesting public figures to emerge from the hotly contested Presidential race in 2008 was John McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain. After gaining notoriety in 2007 by publishing her impressions of the campaign trail as she accompanied her father around the nation, Meghan's blog, McCain Blogette, was picked up by The Daily Beast in 2009. As recently as yesterday, I saw Meghan, along with prominent political analysts (as well as actor Kal Penn) featured as a guest on MSNBC's Now with Alex Wagner.

She is the author of two books. One, published shortly before the November 2008 election, is a children's book entitled My Dad, John McCain. The other, released in 2010, is a book entitled Dirty Sexy Politics, in which, as the book description writes, "She takes a hard look at the future of her party. She doesn't shy away from serious issues and her raucous humor and down-to-earth style keep her positions accessible." The book takes the reader deep inside the campaign in 2008, and on the way tells a story of how McCain discovered how far the GOP has ventured away from "its core values of freedom, honesty, and individuality."

Certainly known for speaking her mind and being much more progressive than her father, I am in a place where I'm not sure what to do with her. I first became acquainted with Meghan when she began taking very progressives stances supporting gay marriage, and against Proposition 8 in California. Indeed, on The Daily Beast, she wrote several pieces justifying her opposition to Prop 8, urging the GOP to support gay rights, and more recently standing against Don't Ask Don't Tell. She was featured as a speaker at several meetings of the Log Cabin Republicans, one of the only national organizations for Republican LGBTs and allies. Again and again, she outspokenly stood in opposition to her father's views on gay rights.

At the beginning of her time with The Daily Beast, Meghan got into a very public debate with staunchly conservative radio personalities, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. As the debate progressed, Ingraham said, of Meghan, "Ok, I was really hoping that I was going to get that role in The Real World, but then I realized that, well, they don't like plus-sized models."  Meghan struck back with intellect, and a bit of feminist insight on The Daily Beast, writing,
Instead of intellectually debating our ideological differences about the future of the Republican Party, Ingraham resorted to making fun of my age and weight, in the fashion of the mean girls in high school....Everyone from Jessica Simpson to Tyra Banks, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton has fallen victim to this type of image-oriented bullying....The question remains: Why, after all this time and all the progress feminists have made, is weight still such an issue? And in Laura’s case, why in the world would a woman raise it? Today, taking shots at a woman’s weight has become one of the last frontiers in socially accepted prejudice.
When her home state of Arizona passed SB 1070, Meghan spoke out against it--and her father's views--yet again. Additionally, I posit that Meghan might actually be a pro-life feminist--proclaiming she is pro-sex education, pro-life, and pro-family on an Episode of The Colbert Report. While some may disagree, her views on female body image, and supporting sex education, gay marriage, and gay adoption have made third-wave feminism part of the mainstream conversation that is happening in both political parties.

While researching more about Meghan, I discovered that in 2004, while she was a student at Columbia University, she voted for John Kerry. Despite her independent voter registration upon reaching age 18 and her seemingly liberal leanings, she remains devoted to the Republican party, changing her registration to Republican in 2008.

Indeed, Meghan's refreshing views of some social issues seem to be what could later become the saving grace of the Republican Party. With so many of the younger generation of voters supporting Obama and The Democrats, McCain may be a very important and instrumental figure in maintaining the GOP's popularity in the next decade and beyond. But, is she a feminist? I say she is. What say you?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

“Bitches be crazy”

“Bitches be crazy” is a phrase that has crept into today’s vernacular. A quick Google search of the phrase reveals how pervasive it has become. The first result links to, where one of the entries “defines” the phrase to be “[o]ne of the only phrases a man can say to comfort himself after a woman does something irrational, ignorant, or insane. It is used to laugh away the confusion a ‘bitch’ inflicts upon a perfectly sane man.” The next Google results are clips from the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” In the clip, a male character uses the phrase to describe a female character who asks her boyfriend to meet her mother and he freaks out in response. Another Google result is a quote from the movie “The Heartbreak Kid.” The phrase refers to a female character that the movie portrays as jealous and annoying. Yet another result links to Bitches Be, “a site where you [i.e. men] can rant about the ridiculous antics of the women in your lives.”

Each example attempts to use the phrase for comedic effect, but each fails to recognize that the phrase combines two of the worst ways society denigrates women with language. The first is the word “bitch.” The second is the word “crazy.”

“Bitch” holds a complicated place in today’s language. Over its history, the word has accumulated numerous and varied definitions, ranging from being misogynist to gender-neutral to even feminist. In a 2007 opinion piece, Andi Zeisler, a co-founder of Bitch magazine, describes how she and her co-founders attempted to “reclaim [‘bitch’] for mouthy, smart women in much the way that ‘queer’ had been repurposed by gay radicals.” She defines the word as “any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men,” and expresses her desire that her next president would be a bitch.

Nonetheless, Ms. Zeisler also reminds us that “bitch” remains a bad word because of our culture’s fear and distaste for strong women. The word, like many other misogynistic words, demeans women. It reduces them to their gender and characterizes them with the word’s negative associations. The word is so bad that even Oprah has banned its use on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Similar to “bitch,” the word “crazy” demeans women. But, instead of negatively characterizing women, “crazy” marginalizes and dismisses them. When discussing emotional responses, our culture often describes women as “crazy,” “oversensitive,” and “hysterical”—contrast to men as “sane” and “rational.” These words reduce a woman’s response to irrational behavior. Consequently, she believes that her feelings are not normal and are thus ultimately worthless. This behavior is similar to what is known as gaslighting: “psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.”

According to Yashar Ali, gaslighting “renders some women emotionally mute.” After a woman repeatedly hears that she is “crazy,” she no longer trusts her own feelings, but instead believes that whatever is said or done to her is normal. Consequently, she is no longer able to express herself when someone hurts her.

What we often forget is that language matters. We need to comprehend what the phrase “bitches be crazy” does to women. Each word carries ingrained meanings and associations. The phrase as a whole simultaneously insults and dismisses women. Yet, as evidenced by its increasing prevalence, our culture treats it as benign slang to get a cheap laugh. Thus, we must counteract its usage. We must be more conscious of how we use words and realize that what is meant as fun can still be harmful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

7 billionth baby

A few weeks ago, the world welcomed its 7 billionth baby. On October 31, Ted Turner authored an article for CNN titled “7 billion reasons to empower women.” He points out the fact that the 7 billionth baby mark is especially concerning because of how quickly we’ve met it. In 1950, the world’s population was estimated to be 2.5 billion. It’s estimated that humans will number over 10 billion at some point after 2083. As Turner points out, by 2010, we could have almost 50% more people on earth than at present.

What does this mean for the human race? It means that it’s time to start talking about women’s reproductive rights in whole new light. New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof recently authored an op-ed titled “The Birth Control Solution.” He suggests that the true key to battling world poverty and climate change threats is to focus on family planning, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Kristof blames unfettered population growth for terrorism as well. He states, “youth bulges in rapidly growing countries like Afghanistan and Yemen makes them more prone to conflict and terrorism.” He also suggests that family planning has met its greatest challenges from politicians and religious groups. Kristof points out that this is a modern challenge, and reports, surprisingly, that birth control traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. Currently, however, that’s not the case.

Beyond concerns of fostering terrorism, climate change, poverty and dwindling resources, perhaps we should focus on the greatest threat of our growing world population: women’s health. In response to the news about the 7th billion baby’s birth, author Madison Park reported on the very real threat that childbirth can pose to women in underdeveloped parts of the world. In her piece, “In giving life, women face deadly risks,” Park reports that “Pregnancy and childbirth complications are among the leading causes of death among women living in developing countries.” This data is reiterated in Turner’s piece, previously discussed, where he reported that, “In the developed world, one out of 4,300 women will die as a consequence of pregnancy. That number is one in 31 in sub-Saharan Africa, and a staggering one out of eight women dies giving birth in Afghanistan.” These numbers are not acceptable. And in looking at these populations, it’s clear that what many of them have in common is lack of sex education and access to birth control. With higher birth rates come greater complications, and a heightened risk of danger to women’s health.

So where do we go from here? A good place to start is with a discussion about the recently released United Nations report titled “ Right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Among the various health topics touched upon in the UN Report, is women’s health. What’s their suggestion? “Public morality cannot serve as a justification for enactment or enforcement of laws that may result in human rights violations, including those intended to regulate sexual and reproductive conduct and decisionmaking.” For those countries that criminalize abortions and birth control, the UN suggests that it’s time that these regulations end. “Criminal prohibition of abortion is a very clear expression of State interference with a woman's sexual and reproductive health because it restricts a woman's control over her body, possibly subjecting her to unnecessary health risks.”

Why is it that governments are willing to risk the health of their female citizens for “moral” reasons? And what do these reports suggest about the religious and political wars against women’s reproductive rights in our own country? How do we combat these backwards approaches?

Hollywood’s exploitation of teenage girls

Breaking news: Hollywood discriminates against women! OK, the U.S.C. study merely confirms what we already knew or suspected. Twice as many speaking parts go to men than women (67.2% versus 32.8%). When women are on screen, they are significantly more likely to “wear sexy clothing . . . , such as swimwear and unbuttoned shirts (25.8% versus 4.7%), to expose skin (23% versus 7.4%) and to be described by another character as attractive (10.9% versus 2.5%).”

The study’s most disturbing conclusion concerns the sexualization of teenage female characters. Teenage females displayed revealing clothing and partial nudity as frequently as 21- to 29-year-old females. Teenage female characters wore sexy clothing significantly more than teenage males (33.8 versus 5.3%). Even skin exposure (showing cleavage, midriff or upper thigh regions) was high and significantly imbalanced (28.2% versus 11.2%).

Teenagers emulate what they see. It is no surprise then that young girls want to appear sexier and engage in sexual acts—see Amber Cole. Girls attempting to be sexy are no longer thinking about trying to act older or more mature. Instead, teenage girls just want to keep up with their perceived peers, the young actresses they see in movies.

The movie industry’s exploitation of teenage females is shameful. According to Smith, sexualizing teenage females may contribute to male viewers perceiving younger and younger girls as “eye candy.” As bad as it is with adult actresses, a movie displaying female minors for the sexual delight of male viewers borders on child pornography. Hollywood’s objectification of teenage females increases “body shame” and “appearance anxiety” among girls.

Unfortunately, shame does not change much in Hollywood. So long as these movies rake in box office returns, Hollywood will continue to produce what it thinks will sell: sex. That means that we, as society, must collectively tell Hollywood that its treatment of teenage females is abhorrent. The only way that we can do that so Hollywood will listen is at the box office.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

De Facto Polygamy?

When conducting research for our feminism and religion project, I came across an article called "Polygamy from Southern Africa to Black Britania to Black America: Global Critical Race Feminism as Legal Reform for the Twenty First Century" by Adrien Wing. Though this article provided fascinating insight into the current state of polygamist communities in parts of rural Africa, Wing also put forth an idea that I find impossible not to discuss. According to Wing, an African American women, African American communities throughout the United States practice what she refers to as "de facto polygamy." Since many African American males are incarcerated, and the population suffers from high fatality rates at a young age, many young African American are left without any datable men in the community (Wing). As a result, the practice of "de facto" polygamy has surfaced in the localities where one man has several girlfriends. While I agree with Wing that de facto polygamy may be present in parts of the US, I would like to expand her idea farther. In fact, I want to radicalize her idea a little more.
By taking Wing's argument one step further, I argue that de facto polygamy is not just an African American anomaly, but an American cultural phenomenon that is occurs on many different levels.

I remember when I was in my teens, my father would constantly admonish me for listening to music- both "gangster" rap and hard rock- that were laden with disparaging messages about women. Though the lyrics were bad, sometimes the music videos were worse. In fact, the theme of many rap videos through the late 1990s and early millennium was pretty apparent. Every video had one man, surrounded the obligatory scantily clad 3 or 4 women who posed throughout the video in sexually compromising positions. Rap, techno, pop music- each of these genres most of the time incorporated misogynistic and sexist ideals into their lyrics and visual media.

Now, I want to reiterate that I am loosely, and generously, using the term polygamy. I am aware that many of these artists would never consciously admit that they approve of polygamy, or that their music was intended to convey this idea. But, one could not have attended an American high school in the new millennium without witnessing some manifestation of de fact polygamy.

To give a more brazen example of "de facto polygamy," I can recall one movie that most people will be familiar with. In Wedding Crashers, two men, played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, attend weddings, each time under a different facade, to sleep with multiple women. Personally, I think sexual liberation is beautiful for both men and women, and I don't want to chastise anyone who may be sexually promiscuous and sleep with LOTS of people. However, I would argue that movies like Wedding Crashers glorify the much celebrated idea of young, handsome men sleeping with as many women as they possibly can, without any strings attached. But, if these men formed semi-relationships with some of the women they slept with, would it in fact be de facto polygamy? As a corollary to this idea, if an individual woman has multiple relationships with several men, is she practicing de facto polyandry?

Although I obviously cannot speak for everyone, most people I encounter have an automatic disdain for polygamy. Many attribute polygamy to the oppression and abuse of women. Others believe that it takes away a woman's personal autonomy. Few will rejoice polygamy as a positive, social good for women. I think that once people have sorted through the negative feelings associated with polygamy, the actual practice of polygamy, if personal choice is involved, becomes a little easier to bear. One caveat to accepting a polygamous relationship is that personal choice must mean complete autonomy, absent any duress or emotional/physical coercion.

According to scholar, Michele Alexandre, in her article "Big Love: Is Feminist Polygamy an Oxymoron or a True Possibility," an anti-essentialist view may help Western cultures understand the practice of polygamy that so many of us condemn. Furthermore, when one acknowledges the various forms of polygamy that are present in contemporary America, it becomes possible to see that women sometimes choose polygamous relationships on their own volition. As someone who has long been exposed to the anti-Polygamist sentiment, I find it hard to believe that any women has truly consented to a polygamist marriage. But, others may find it incredulous that some women and men engage in other sorts of sexual activities without coercion from other sources (such as "cultural" coercion or peer influence.) Where there is physical or emotional abuse, as can be the case in certain countries where women have no rights, I cannot dispense with my "westernized" view that such women are acting autonomously. But, absent these blatantly coercive circumstances, I think that Alexandre has a point. I know after reading Alexandre's article and Wing's in the same day, I started to rethink some of my misconceptions about polygamy. While I have not changed my mind drastically, I have challenged myself to consider my beliefs. That may be the most that any of us can do, but its worth a shot.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Female leaders and pepper spray: a case study

This week, the UC Davis campus has been embroiled in conflict. On Friday, November 19, police officers used pepper spray to forcibly remove protestors from an on-campus Occupy live-in. After this video of a police officer pepper spraying students went viral, the national news media picked up the story. Between Friday and today (Monday), the town has been abuzz with talk about, and reactions to, the incident.

When initially reading about Friday’s events, two names jumped out at me: Linda Katehi and Annette Spicuzza. The former is the by-now-well-known Chancellor of UC Davis. The latter is the UC Davis Police Chief.

In short: here we have a situation in which both of the power players were women. As Cheryl de la Rey points out in her article “Women, Gender, and Leadership” (published in the magazine Agenda on April 27, 2011), “There is an ongoing debate which focuses on the question of whether women have different leadership styles from men.” A prominent school of Feminist theorists proposes that “women [do] have different leadership styles.” Female leadership styles, the story goes, are more participatory, democratic, sensitive, nurturing and caring than male approaches. “Other characteristics associated with women’s leadership,” the article states, “include good conflict management.”

So: what went wrong?

The easy – though, I think incorrect – answer would be to reject the notion that female leaders are any different than male leaders. One could argue instead that those who aspire to positions of power are aggressive by nature to a degree that overrides gender difference. This response, however, strikes me as too facile.

More illuminating is an alternative theory -- that while women might aspire to non-traditional, "feminine" leadership styles, within an institutional context they "are socialised and selected into their organisational role and that this overrides their gender role. This results in little difference between male and female leaders.” A socialization pattern (for leaders) that encourages aggression and discourages compassion is consistent with Feminist theory that recognizes hegemonic masculinity’s persistent influence in our society.

As Catherine MacKinnon writes in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, even today "[m]en’s . . .  socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, . . . their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art*, . . . their wars and rulerships [and chancellorships, and experiences as police captains define] history, [and] their image defines God."

(Interestingly, the Women and Gender Studies Faculty’s open letter to Chancellor Katehi didn’t mention any of this. This would have been an incredibly opportune time for faculty members to bring the salient issues in their discipline to light – but I digress.)

Skeptics of Feminism may look at my argument, well, skeptically. Die-hard Feminists might argue that these female power players are taking the fall for the predictably aggressive actions of aspirants to hegemonic masculinity (namely the much-maligned Lieutenant Pike and his team). I simply offer a structural interpretation – one possible reason why women in leadership might feel institutional pressure to respond to a peaceful protest with disproportionate force, rather than to “talk it out” -- even if their guts advised otherwise. Classmates, what do you think? Do we blame this blatant failure of judgment on the specific individuals involved, or is the problem – at its core – structural?     

* Non-sequitur: For an interesting, revolutionary Feminist response to the historical norm of male objectification of life as art, see this exhibit at SOMArts.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Are we going too far to protect our kids?

I’ve done it again. What started out as a comment became yet another post. Last week’s “Digital bullying, stalking, and the unfortunate price of free speech,” was thought provoking and it drove me to reexamine my views on recent anti-bullying legislation. I must admit that my views remain the same, but I feel better for having reconsidered them. As I understand the author’s views, he believes recent anti-cyberbullying laws are necessary to combat the ruthless torment taking place in (and outside) our schools. However, there is a concern that some laws push the boundaries too far, allowing schools to monitor bullying in the private sphere away from campus. These laws, such as a new law in Connecticut, create a gray zone open to interpretation. This interpretation is problematic because it allows schools to potentially infringe on private speech made away from schools. While the author does not condemn the premise of these laws, he does raise a legitimate concern. Forgive me if I have misread the piece; if I am wrong, please feel free to correct me.

However, if I am right, I must disagree. Admittedly, these laws do expand the reach of schools to regulate and punish various forms of bullying, including cyberbullying. But they do not overextend their reach. The Connecticut law goes on to limit its application to “bullying (A) on school grounds, at a… school-related activity… and (B) outside the school setting if such bullying (i) creates a hostile environment at school… (ii) infringes on the rights of the student… at school, or (iii) substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school[.]” See Public Act No. 11-232, Section 1(b)(15). The California Education Code includes a similar provision. Section 48900(r) provides that any student who is engaged in acts of bullying, including bullying by electronic means, may be suspended or expelled from their school. Under 48900(s), this law is applicable to any act that "is related to school activity or attendance." In other words, any bullying that prevents a student from attending class could be punished by the school- even if it takes place off-campus.

I believe these laws fall within the parameters of the Tinker Test. See Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Bullying imposes deeply emotional and psychological harms to its victims. These harms "materially and substantially" disrupt a school's ability to provide an education to its students; therefore, schools should be given the ability to regulate such actions. “[C]onduct by the student, in class or out of it, which for any reason-whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior-materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” Tinker, 393 U.S. at 513 [italics added for emphasis]. The Connecticut and California laws encompass bullying that creates a hostile environment at school or prevents a student from attending school. Bullying, even “private” bullying, infringes on these rights possessed by teenagers and adolescents.

In my mind, the Tinker Test is still a viable guideline for our schools. Although time and technology have changed, the responsibilities of schools to provide a safe learning environment have not. It is true that our schools should be mindful about overextending their reach under these laws. But these laws have been properly and narrowly tailored to prevent any form of bullying that affects their educational mission alone. Any bullying that falls outside those restraints, such as backyard teasing, retains its “protected private speech”-qualities, however regrettable.

These laws represent a pragmatic approach to the vast misuses of technology. As in the story of Amber Cole, we are too often witnesses to young men exercising their masculinity to establish patriarchal norms over women. Adolescent girls are significantly more likely to have experienced cyberbullying in their lifetimes, but society’s idea of a “masculine man” also drives teens to attack other boys for being gay or simply not “manly enough.” Surely my colleague was correct, informal means such as comprehensive education programs or presentations and other avenues appealing to teens are a powerful way to address the problem before it begins. But these anti-cyberbullying laws are also essential tools to help protect our young people.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Imagine that you move to a new town with a whole new set of rules.

In this new land, women must always dress in long sleeves and skirts. Why? Because the female body is too beautiful, too sexual. Ladies must enter many businesses through a “women's only" entrance and restrict their strolls to "women's only" sidewalks (regardless of what the court decides). Why? Because the presence of females (or her touch if she comes too close) is too distracting to men. In fact, men are known to literally relegate women to the back of the bus. Why? Because women are not the equals of men.

The discrimination does not stop there.

In this new town, a woman who sings in public will cause quite the reaction. Whether nor not her singing occurs intentionally or accidentally, a woman’s song will cause several men in the vicinity to leave her presence (...and not because she sounds awful). Why? Because her luring voice inspires sexual thought. Printed images of women do not fare well either. Advertisements utilizing images of women will last for only a few days before they are covered or defaced. It does not matter if the advertisement serves to promote upcoming performances or product lines targeted at women. Why? Because men should not be distracted by the image of a woman, and women should be hidden, protected, respected, and focused on their home-making and child-rearing responsibilities.

Unfortunately, this new land is not a figment of my imagination. My "new land" is, in fact, the very old, "holy city" of Jerusalem. While people of many religions share the streets of Jerusalem, this post highlights the world of Ultra-Orthodox Jews within the walls of the city.

As a Jewish woman, it insults me to know that many fellow Jewish women live as second-class citizens (or so it seems to me). The restrictions naturally remind me of those endured by African-Americans during the shameful era of U.S. segregation. Placing my personal outrage aside, though, the law student in me questions whether such conduct warrants protection, and, if protected, what it means for the women of these communities. Additionally, especially in the wake of growing extremist activity, how much “ultra-orthodox” is too much (especially in a religious country)? It seems the restrictions serve to harm women, but might the restrictions provide a benefit to the women?

As I contemplate these questions and consider the value of the Ultra-Orthodoxy’s rules and restrictions, I’m reminded of the Prologue to the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. “Tradition. Tradition!” the voices sing as songs and images set the 1905 scene of Anatevka, a traditional Russian Jewish village. Is “tradition” an appropriate reason to treat females different from males?

Tradition fascinates me. Raised in a family more ethnically than religiously Jewish, my parents let me choose whether or not I wanted to study Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah. I chose to do both. My interest in the religion centered predominantly on a desire to understand my family’s history and the associated religious traditions. As a child, I also created many of my own traditions with friends and family. Additionally, during my undergraduate years, I joined the committee charged with protecting the songs and traditions of the university, and I even served as the ritual chair of my sorority (there’s nothing like songs, passwords, secret handshakes, and initiation ceremonies from 1894).

As someone who appreciates and respects tradition, I am thankful for the religious communities that preserve the old Jewish traditions. My family, like many others, lost traditions during the Holocaust, and we continue to lose them as the elder members of my family complete their lives. My limited experience with traditional (often called ultra-orthodox) Chabad-Lubavitch families reminds me of the value of such communities to a “dying religion.” In many ways, the home of a Chabad family feels much like the home of my grandparents. It’s warm, open to friends and neighbors, and filled with people hungry to learn and more than willing to share their thoughts on controversial subjects. Babies are passed from person to person, there’s always something to help out with, and there’s always lots and lots of tasty food.

Yet, people and traditions evolve. While I appreciate that Chabad provides a space for the preservation of many religious traditions and Jewish culture, and I can understand why an ultra-orthodox community might institute new rules that better allow members to follow these traditions, I also value progress. Women fought and continue to fight for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities. As a woman, I want the freedom to pursue my interests, and I want others to treat me like an adult person, not like a prize, a child, or a sex object.

To return to my earlier questions, then, how much orthodoxy is too much? Limits must exist somewhere, right? If I can create my own, feminist traditions, what should stop the ultra-conservatives from developing their own not-so-feminist traditions? A productive analysis might balance the importance of religious freedom and tradition against the potential harms to women and women’s rights. Are the women of ultra-orthodox communities making their own personal choices, or do the men decide? Are not both parties equally inconvenienced by many of the aforementioned ultra-orthodox rules? What other aspects of Judaism discriminate against women?

Personal Choice

While covering hair and wearing long skirts might represent a personal choice, I question whether a woman (even a religious woman) would prefer special walkways and entrances. Unlike the issue of co-ed bathrooms, a woman buying milk should not need to take off her panties in the grocery store. It’s simply her presence and proximity that creates the issue.

Both Suffer, Right?

I’m not convinced that both suffer equally. A woman barred from singing in public will need to worry about accidentally singing while she runs errands or walks down the street with friends. It is true that when a man hears this woman singing he may need to leave the line and change his plans for the day. Yet, while the rules, restrictions, and associated actions may create inconveniences for both sexes, it appears to me that they inconvenience women more than men. Why? Because women, due only to their sex, provide the reason for all of the rules.

Other Religious Discrimination?

Other rules associated with Judaism generally (rather than simply the ultra-orthodox) also serve to suffocate and humiliate women more than they improve observance of traditional religious ideals. For example, finalization of a traditional Jewish divorce requires the husband to deliver a document called a “get” to his wife. Without this document, neither party is free to remarry under Jewish law, and any future children born to women in this situation are deemed bastards (which carries its own social and religious consequences). Since Jewish law requires the man to provide the document of his own free will (and not by order of the court), many women—including victims of domestic violence—fall subject to the consequences. See Ann Laquer Estin, Embracing Tradition: Pluralism in American Family Law, MD. L. Rev. 540, 578-586 (2004).

Thus, even the law student in me has trouble rationalizing protection of all the ultra-orthodox gender segregation policies. I acknowledge that I approach these relevant questions from a biased perspective. Yet, while I understand a woman who prefers the company of women to men, I find it difficult to understand a woman who welcomes restrictions on her non-offensive actions simply because of her sex.

I hope that Israel (and other countries facing extremist activity prejudicial to women) considers the issues and considers them carefully. Tradition, culture, and religion deserve recognition and protection, but so do women. Rules that place restrictions on women simply because of their gender suffer from the flaws of inequality. Unless leaders develop further protections for women, I fear that restrictions discriminating against women could result in more harm than good.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The girl effect

Watch this video:

The Girl Effect brings attention to a major void in the current approach to international aid - girls. Less than two cents of every dollar spent on international aid goes to help girls, yet girls are often cited as the key to ending many of the world’s most pressing problems. By focusing on adolescent girls, The Girl Effect seeks to attack poverty at its source by starting with perhaps the least valued demographic in the world. The Girl Effect and other organizations have listened to the mounting research that points to young women as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty that leaves much of the world devastated, and their work is critical to large scale change.

I came across The Girl Effect while looking into which organizations I would like to donate this holiday season. This campaign struck me as innovative yet painfully obvious, humane and effective, and I’ve quickly become a huge advocate of their message. Their concept is not entirely novel, over the past ten years other organizations have also begun to turn their attention to girls as an untapped opportunity and crucial requirement to global health and economic stability. The “Because I am a Girl” campaign by Plan is very similar, their goal is, “to fight gender inequality, promote girls' rights and lift millions of girls out of poverty.” One organization, Girls Discovered, seeks to properly count girls, as they are often under accounted for (i.e. not given proper birth documentation, not counted properly by their communities) leaving large portions of girls invisible and underserved. There are a host of other organizations that contribute to girls in many different ways (health, education, sports, etc.) that are innovative and important, but The Girl Effect stuck with me because of its focus on harnessing the power of girls to change entire communities. Perhaps because The Girl Effect was founded by the Nike Foundation, it has the powerful “Just Do It” feeling, but its focus on pure empowerment is, I believe, the best message for young women everywhere.

Countless studies over the past decade have shown that gender inequality perpetuates the cycle of poverty, limiting the health and economic development of countries where gender inequality is severe. By leaving girls uneducated, relegated to unpaid housework, and condoning teen pregnancy and rape, entire nations either acquiesce or promote a system which renders girls powerless in their communities. Their powerlessness has palpable consequences as there are direct correlations to HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, death during childbirth, sex trafficking, and poverty.

The Girl Effect’s approach to combating these problems combines proper identification of girls from birth, literacy and education, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and financial opportunities. Without a proper birth certificate, a girl cannot prove her age to protect herself from child marriage or to secure a job. This leads to more children that they can’t afford, joblessness, or even health complications due to childbirth at a young age. Lack of literacy and education prevent girls from participating fully in the community or ever becoming a major presence in the formal economy. Further, leaving school early often leads to early marriage and pregnancy. The Girl Effect projects that Kenya would gain $27 billion in potential income per generation if its female dropouts had continued their education. Likewise, they posit that India sacrifices a potential of $100 billion over a lifetime due to adolescent pregnancy. Not only are there psychological consequences of disempowerment, but substantial economic ramifications for the community.

Finally, investing in business opportunities for girls through microloans presents some of the best opportunities to lifting entire communities out of poverty. The examples are numerous and the results dramatic: By providing loans as small as $2, girls start making their own income, they grow their businesses by hiring more women, and soon become key players in their communities’ economy. What’s more, studies reveal that women spend their money differently than men, so much so that these differences would dramatically impact the health of their communities. Women invest nearly 90% of their income into their families through health care, nutrition, and education, while men only invest 30-40% of their income in the same way. In impoverished areas, men tend to spend a disproportionate amount on tobacco, alcohol, and prostitution. International donors have caught on to this data and begun to direct more of their funds towards women as they will see more bang for their buck.

As I was always told growing up and playing sports, “A team is only as strong as its weakest link.” By bringing attention to this undervalued and often forgotten demographic, The Girl Effect invests in the “weakest link” to demonstrate that young girls hold more potential for world change than any other demographic; they are an unrealized economic force, and stand to accelerate growth in nearly every sector. In a 2008 report, Goldman Sachs concluded that, “gender inequality hurts economic growth.” Even the infamous Larry Summers wrote when he was chief economist at World Bank, “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”

When girls have resources they invest them in their families. When communities invest in girls’ health, everyone’s health improves. When girls are valued and permitted to contribute to society, their contributions improve the conditions of all those around them. It's a pretty simple concept supported by years of research, that, if fostered, could lead to remarkable changes for the developing world. Shifting cultural views so that girls are valued from the time they are born and through their adolescence will lead to tremendous improvements in the developing world.

If you've already started thinking about holiday giving, I strongly encourage donating to an organization that invests directly in girls around the world.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gender affirmative action: when women beat men in their own merit-based systems, do women lose yet again?

While before my lifetime, it was not long ago that many of the prestigious private colleges and universities, once men-only, opened their doors to women.  In fact, at my alma mater, Brown University (est. 1767), women were not admitted until Brown incorporated its sister school, Pembroke College (est. 1891), in 1971. Similarly, other Ivy League colleges, such as Columbia (1983), Dartmouth (1972), Harvard (1977), Princeton (1969), and Yale (1969) only began admitting women during the time second-wave feminism really caught wind and the Equal Rights Amendment was pending in many state legislatures. [1] As noted by my colleague in the post Single-sex education: separate but equal?, the choice to turn co-educational has likely done nothing but enriched the academic experiences of students at these elite schools.

Now, it seems women are surpassing men in the merit-based education system men themselves designed. Documented in several New York Times articles from the past few years, women are now earning Bachelor's Degrees at a rate of 3:2 over men. In February 2010, Alex Williams wrote an article entitled "The New Math on Campus," which examined the now approximately 60% female undergraduate population at the University of North Carolina.[2] An American Center for Education study, cited by Williams, notes that of the total enrollment of American undergraduate students in the Fall of 2007, 56.9% is female. More stark are the enrollment figures for graduate students, only 39.7% of which are male. While professional schools remain slightly more male (50.7%), a new question is emerging among administrators of academic institutions around the country: should preference be given to male students in order to maintain an even gender distribution among student bodies?

As Williams notes in his article, many of the women attending college in which 60% of their peers are also female, concerns have been raised about romantic opportunities.
But surrounded by so many other successful women, [women students] often find it harder than expected to find a date on a Friday night.

“My parents think there is something wrong with me because I don’t have a boyfriend, and I don’t hang out with a lot of guys,” said Ms. Andrew, who had a large circle of male friends in high school.

Jayne Dallas, a senior studying advertising who was seated across the table, grumbled that the population of male undergraduates was even smaller when you looked at it as a dating pool. “Out of that 40 percent, there are maybe 20 percent that we would consider, and out of those 20, 10 have girlfriends, so all the girls are fighting over that other 10 percent,” she said.

Needless to say, this puts guys in a position to play the field, and tends to mean that even the ones willing to make a commitment come with storied romantic histories. Rachel Sasser, a senior history major at the table, said that before she and her boyfriend started dating, he had “hooked up with a least five of my friends in my sorority — that I know of.”
But concerns over the growing gender gap in American colleges and universities are far more complex than simply a desire to ensure an even dating field for students. Many admissions officers cite other concerns as driving a new trend in giving men with lower test scores and GPAs than their female counterparts admission in order to balance the student body along gender lines. In March 2006, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, an Admissions Officer at Kenyon College in Ohio, stirred up the debate in an op-ed entitled, To All the Girls I've Rejected. She wrote, "The reality is that because young men are rarer, they're more valued applicants." Men were only 45% of applicants to Kenyon in 2006. And, as it turns out, if fewer than 40% of students are male, the schools reaches what experts call the "tipping point." As Britz wrote,
Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.
The Supreme Court found soft racial affirmative action policies, such as the one administered at the University of Michigan, constitutional on Equal Protection grounds in 2003. But no one has filed a similar challenge on behalf of women in academic admissions. Does the desire to have a "diverse" student body outweigh the new advantages given to male applicants simply because of their sex?

More importantly, even though women earn 3 bachelor's degrees for every 2 that men earn, they still earn less, all other things being equal. According to the World Economic Forum's Sixth Annual Gender Gap Report, women hold fewer than 20% of all decision-making national positions. A comprehensive report on women in the United States conducted by the White House and released in March 2011 found that women are still more likely to suffer critical health problems, such as mobility impairments, arthritis, asthma, and depression. They are more likely to live in poverty, and single-mother families face particularly high poverty rates.

Given the many other areas in which women still suffer a grave disadvantage, can't schools find some other solution to their "tipping point" problems? Do we need an even gender balance at schools to ensure the most diverse and enriching educational experience for our students? Do you think gender balancing--admitting lower achieving male applicants at the expense of rejecting female applicants who have accomplished quite a bit more--is a necessity?  And why is no one trying to encourage male students to accomplish more?

[1] Interestingly, Cornell and U.Penn. admitted women far earlier than the other schools in the Ivy League.
[2] Of all of the institutions surveyed in Williams' article, it should be noted that the Ivy League maintains the most even male:female ratio of all of the nation's post-secondary schools.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Did anyone read the Katie Roiphe piece in the NYT?

I thought this op-ed was particularly tone deaf (and really shallow for a piece in the NTY) based on my experience as a female attorney, but I'm curious to know what others think.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Single-sex education: separate but better?

In my last post, I commented on gender-segregated youth programs. I believe that such programs empower girls at a time they need it most: their adolescence. However, I do not believe that gender-segregation should extend to the classroom. Like some of the commenters of my post, when I first asked whether we should encourage single-sex classrooms, I lacked an answer. But, I came to my current stance on the issue after listening to a conversation on National Public Radio about a recent report in the journal Science.

The report concludes that there is a lack of scientific support that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance. Diane F. Halpern, et al., The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling, 333 SCIENCE 1706 (2011). Any seeming benefits single-sex education offers are removed after adjusting for pre-existing academic development among incoming students and for premature transferring of underperforming students. Additionally, research has yet to show that any neurological differences between boys and girls relate to learning. Dr. Diane Halpern, the lead author of the report, concedes that there are some differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, but “that in no way means that there are differences in how they learn or they should have different kinds of learning experiences.” Interview by Kerry Klein with Diane Halpern, Professor, Claremont McKenna College (Sept. 23, 2011).

Not only are there no real benefits to single-sex education, the report discusses how it can actually be harmful. Evidence shows that single-sex education “increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” Halpern, supra, at 1706. Single-sex education limits opportunities for boys and girls to work together. Consequently, “[b]oys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive” and have a “greater risk for behavior problems.” Id. at 1707. Simultaneously, “girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed.” Id.

Single-sex education has increased in popularity since the mid-1990s. At the time, there were only two single-sex public schools. Now, there are more than 500 public schools across forty states that offer at least some single-sex academic classes. Tamar Lewin, Single-Sex Education Is Assailed in Report, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 23, 2011, at A19.

In the early 1990s, new research depicted a lost generation of adolescent girls. First, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published a report revealing that girls received a lower quality education than boys. See generally AM. ASS’N OF UNIV. WOMEN EDUC. FOUND., HOW SCHOOLS SHORTCHANGE GIRLS (1992). Educators were treating girls differently in the classroom. Consequently, girls left school with less confidence and self-esteem than boys. Additionally, significantly fewer girls pursued science, math, or engineering in college or as careers. Second, Mary Pipher, a therapist and academic, published Reviving Ophelia. In the book, Pipher’s therapy patients, adolescent girls, tell their stories while Pipher examines how society poisons girls when they are most vulnerable. Pipher awakened society to the “social and developmental Bermuda Triangle” that was trapping young girls. MARY PIPHER, REVIVING OPHELIA 19 (1994). Both the AAUW’s report and Reviving Ophelia contributed to society’s increased use of sex-segregated education to save adolescent girls. Lewin, supra, at A19.

While single-sex education seems well-meaning on the surface, I think it is a lazy response to a larger problem. American youth receive a declining quality education. Additionally, there exists a discrepancy in education between the sexes. It would be easier simply to say boys and girls learn differently. However, as Latifa Lyles of the National Organization for Women notes, small class sizes, a rigorous and diverse curriculum, and resources funneled for success are what make a school successful.

Furthermore, single-sex education does not properly solve the adverse learning environment girls encounter. We recognize the problem. Yet, instead of addressing how the media, society, and culture create the hostile learning environment, we try to use single-sex education to escape the issue altogether. We think that if we remove the boys, then gender bias is no longer present. At first sight, single-sex education does seem to make the problem vanish. We hear success stories and feel-good anecdotes. However, the solution is illusory because in reality, single-sex education perpetuates gender stereotypes, recreating the problem it attempts to solve.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Policing gender: gender-segregated restrooms

[Note: For this article, I will be using the pronoun "they" to describe singular individuals in order to recognize and honor those who struggle with gendered pronouns. Apologies for any grammar rules I may be breaking in order to do so.]

Very few children born in the late-1970s to mid-1980s can forget the epic teenage drama My So-Called Life, which aired on ABC for a single season from 1994 to 1995.  The show, featuring a young cast including Jared Leto and Claire Danes, was one of the most provocative of its time, addressing various issues including HIV/AIDS, homelessness, teenage alcohol and drug use, promiscuous sexual behavior, and the unique challenges faced by teenagers in the MTV-age.  What I remember it for most, however, is its depiction of an openly gay man of color, played by Wilson Cruz, named Rickie Vasquez.

The show features Rickie coming to terms with his sexual orientation and gender identity in a way that was remarkably fresh and realistic for its time.  And, most importantly for me, it was the first time I saw the effects of gender-segregated restrooms on those who do not easily identify with one gender or the other.  Rickie dressed most often in fairly flamboyant, although clearly masculine, attire. He wore an earring in his left ear.  The show depicted Rickie throughout the series applying and wearing eyeliner. His best friends were two girls, including the protagonist of the series, Angela Chase.

Instead of waiting outside of the girls restroom for his friends to do their make-up, gossip, or (most rarely it seems) use the facilities, he joined them.  Many times throughout the series, other female students using the restroom were not too comfortable with his presence. And yet, perhaps because he was attracted to other men, he was never officially banned or sanctioned by the school and his presence was seemingly tolerated.

Unfortunately, gender-segregated restrooms have made it difficult for people who do not squarely fit within a clearly female or clearly male gender presentation with a very serious problem: what do you do when you need to use the restroom, but you don't look like either of the polar sides of the gender binary for which restrooms are provided? What should be a basic biological, human function becomes an issue of safety.  If a gender non conforming person chooses the wrong restroom, they face violent resistance if someone in the room disagrees with their choice. This disagreement is often called the policing of gender. People who are uncomfortable with the gender presentation of someone else can use gender segregation as an excuse to assert that the person is somehow a deviant or criminal, or worse, violently express their disagreement with that gender presentation.

The Transgender Law Center (TLC) in San Francisco published a guide for activists in 2005 entitled "Peeing in Peace: A Resource Guide for Activists and Allies." In the guide, the TLC recognizes that this problem has not just been faced by those not conforming to gender norms. In the 1970s, when women were fighting to break down gender segregated employment opportunities, many women in traditionally-male professions had to fight for restrooms on job sites that only provided men's rooms. Similarly, people with disabilities struggled until the middle of the 1980s to achieve disabled-friendly restrooms.

While it seems somewhat petty to spend time pursuing gender-neutral restrooms, restroom access is essential to allow all people to participate in public life. Indeed, if a student feels unsafe in restrooms at school, they will likely skip, have attendance problems, and subsequently achieve low grades. On the employment front, if an employee is not allowed to use a restroom at work, they could be fired or quit because of their inability to use the restroom due to co-worker discomfort.

The "Peeing in Peace" guide accurately describes the search for a safe restroom as a very serious problem for many gender nonconforming people.  It writes,
Even in cities or towns that are generally considered good places to be transgender (like San Francisco or Los Angeles), many transgender people are harassed, beaten and questioned by authorities in both women’s and men’s rooms. In a 2002 survey conducted by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, nearly 50% of respondents reported having been harassed or assaulted in a public bathroom. Because of this, many transgender people avoid public bathrooms altogether and can develop health problems as a result. This not only affects people who think of themselves as transgender, but also many others who express their gender in a non-stereotypical way but who may not identify as transgender (for instance, a masculine woman or an effeminate man). 
So why continue this harmful segregation? What are the justifications? Many people are visibly uncomfortable when presented with the suggestion that multi-stall restrooms be gender-desegregated. Indeed, several weeks ago when covering intermediate scrutiny in Constitutional Law II, when my professor queried why individuals believed gender segregated restrooms survived intermediate scrutiny, many of my (interestingly, predominantly male) classmates answered, "Because it does." When pressed further, most tried to cite health issues, the "messy," "unclean" nature of men in restrooms, or endangerment of women and children, as reasons that gender segregated restrooms would withstand a constitutional Equal Protection inquiry. Indeed, I found the reactions of my classmates to be very similar to those that were most likely voiced by white people when asked why restrooms should be segregated according to race.

The TLC argues that these justifications have more to do with social perceptions than they have to do with any real important governmental interest. Countering the safety argument, "Peeing in Peace" writes,
The truth is that the current bathroom situation does not adequately ensure women’s safety. Putting a sign that says “women” on the door of a bathroom does not stop people who want to harm women from entering. Thinking that a sign will create protection might actually increase the potential for violence in bathrooms because if someone did intend to assault a woman in a bathroom, they would certainly know where to look. In doing bathroom activism, it is important that we help people realize that something as symbolic as a sign on a door does not provide any real safety or protection. 
The current bathroom situation is not particularly safe for children either. Many opponents of bathroom activism have stated that making bathrooms safer for transgender people will make them less safe for children. However, gender-neutral bathrooms can actually be safer for children because parents or other caretakers would be able to accompany them to any public bathroom thus personally ensuring their safety.
Additionally, if health concerns were really a problem, unisex single-stall restrooms, or indeed, private restrooms within people's homes, would need to be gender segregated as well.

Many college campuses have chosen to make their multi-stall dorm restrooms gender neutral. In 2005, I visited my brother, who was then studying at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. His freshman dorm had entirely gender neutral restrooms, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that nothing seemed different when I walked out of a stall and washed my hands next to a man.

What we are left with, then, is a socially ingrained discomfort that persists in maintaining gender segregated public restrooms for entirely arbitrary reasons. What results is a landscape of hate and bigotry that prevents the most vulnerable in our society from even accessing and participating in public life.

And in this corner, in the red skirt…

An update to AMA’s post regarding the introduction of women’s boxing as an event in the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games:

This week, the AP reported on the issue of skirts. Skirts, you ask? What about them? In perhaps one of the most ludicrous headlines of the week, the International Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) announced that they would be meeting in January to decide whether female boxers participating in the 2012 London Summer Olympics would be required to wear skirts instead of shorts. The official announcement came as a response to the recent media rumors suggesting that female boxers might face a skirt requirement. It turns out that the rumors were semi-true. The IABA states that the January conference will be an opportunity to discuss the issue and draw up recommendations. In response to the controversy, the IABA has defended itself by claiming that skirts would give the female boxers a chance to “stand out” from the male competitors.

The suggestion that skirts would give female boxers an opportunity to “stand out” from the male boxers is not only ludicrous, but also offensive. The IABA’s announcement has understandably met quite a bit of criticism. A female boxer who is expected to compete in the 2012 Games responded: “I won’t be wearing a miniskirt,” Ireland’s three-time world champion Katie Taylor told the BBC last week. “I don’t even wear miniskirts on a night out, so I definitely won’t be wearing miniskirts in the ring.” The AP noted that the announcement from the IABA was similar to when, in 2004, the FIFA president suggested that female soccer players should wear “tighter shorts” as a way to make the sport more popular. The suggestion was ignored, but the premise is very much the same as the proposal at hand: women should look sexy even when playing sports.

The Huffington Post reported on the IABA’s announcement and explored other sports in which females are traditionally expected to wear skirts (i.e., field hockey, tennis, golf, etc.). Interestingly enough, even female equestrian riders used to wear skirts in competition, requiring a sidesaddle riding style. The Huffington Post ended their article by posing a question: “Are skirts a liberating, more comfortable alternative to other active wear? Or a remnant of unenlightened views on women's relationship to sports?”

For me, whether or not a female wears shorter shorts or tighter skirts isn’t a question of liberation or an opportunity to “stand out.” The IABA’s announcement that they are going to have to decide whether female athletes are going to be required to wear skirts is what truly angers me. Female athletes should be allowed to wear shorts or skirts, whatever they feel they need to compete at their best. These athletes do not need a committee to choose their outfit. And to suggest that female boxers need something to help them "stand out" is simply disrespectful. The point is that the IABA would never have this discussion about male boxers’ uniforms. It’s a double standard that should enrage fans of boxing, and fans of all women’s sports.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Media and domestic violence

In today’s class, we watched the music video for “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem, featuring Rihanna. Megan Fox, an actress/model who frequently appears in men’s magazines, plays the recognizably stereotypical battered woman in this four minute melodrama. Her unkempt hair falls into her face and whips around and she spits and hits. She is dressed in short cut-off jeans, a faded grey tank-top, and old military boots. Her partner has only a pair of baggy gym shorts on and bares a shaved head and tattoos. The cluttered home with an old beige couch and dimly lit hallways, the bar fight, and making out on lawn chairs behind an avenue of billboards drinking Stoly’s vodka straight from the bottle—it all scream small-town white-trash.

She hits him after finding a phone number written on his hand. Physically unfazed but angry and provoked, he hits back and the cycle of violence begins. After the fight, sorry and shameful, he returns with a sad ragged teddy bear as a condolence. He promises to never hit her again—a promise they both know is a lie. Sure enough, the young couple “fall back into the same patter, the same routine,” until the song trails off with an image of their house burning to the ground. Megan Fox, apparently still inside, tied to the bed, sings longingly for her violent partner, “just gonna stand there and watch me burn, that’s alright because I like the way it hurts, just gonna stand there and hear me cry, that’s alright because I love the way you lie.” The class exhales, sits back, and heavy discussion ensues…

The use of art to explore issues like domestic violence is relatively new in today’s society. Indeed, art can bring awareness and call attention to difficult matters, like violence against women, in a palpable and constructive way. Art has also been used as a healing/coping tool for domestic violence victims who need to transform these atrocious experiences before confronting them. For instance, “The Heart of Women” project provides a creative outlet for domestic violence victims who share their stories, not with words, but with oils and canvases. One women expresses: “I didn’t just throw paint up there, I threw my tears my sweat, my pain,” she said. “It brings out so much. The beatings I took, the rapes I had to endure, the lies, the betrayal… the pain.”

While art can be healing for the artists, and enlightening for consumers, students in our Feminist Legal Theory class were skeptical of the educational capacity of Eminem’s video. Some students argued that teenagers and young adults, who are the target audience for MTV, are less able to discern what we perceived as the underlying message of the video—that the cycle of violence is a dangerous trap, seemingly romantic, but ultimately deadly. As one classmate pointed out, it is far too easy to get caught up in the beautiful faces, the sexy images, and the melody, and miss the more subtle messages about class, gender, sexism, and violence. Given what we have learned about the powerful influence of media on body image, gender roles, masculinity, and femininity, it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine the ways in which popular media guides identity formation in young adults.

Research has found that many teens draw heavily from media images as they navigate the road to self-discovery and identification. For instance, one 18 year-old explains, “Yeah, I feel like even though I disagree with a lot of things that are on TV, it still does affect me. It's kind of like what you see on TV, you kind of assume is normal, you know? You see this sit-com of like the normal family, and they are doing things, they are kind of saying that this type of like behavior is normal. . . It's kind of like when you are little and you see your parents, they are kind of like this model of like what you are supposed to do. So, you like copy that, whether consciously or not. So it's kind of like that.”

But teenagers are not automatons who receive input and generate output devoid of volition. Jeanne Rogge Steele, professor of Journalism at Ohio University, suggests that the influence of media on teenage sexuality involves a more complicated process of selection, evaluation, application, and incorporation/resistance. Not surprisingly, middle and high-school students are searching out images and story-lines that resonate with their lives. Ethnicity, gender, and class all affect how teens select and interact with a range of media options and alternatives. Relevantly, the participants in Steele’s study viewed a music video and participated in an open discussion. The findings from the discussion were two-fold: first, there was a tendency in groups to adjust perceptions to move towards a uniform understanding of the video, and second, it was apparent that some teens misunderstood the producer-intended meaning of the video. Thus, the take-away for us is that art may not be the most effective way to inform teenagers about domestic violence. It is too easy to miss the punch-line. Perhaps more effective would be to use explicit, clear statements from role-models who have gained credibility with young people.