Thursday, September 29, 2011
I read this news story shortly after also reading Catherine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989). I couldn’t help but juxtapose the news story with an excerpt from that scholarly work: “Women have been excluded from jobs in male-only prisons . . . because they might get raped, the Court taking the viewpoint of the reasonable rapist on women’s employment opportunities. The conditions that create women’s rapability are not seen as susceptible to legal change.”
In what may seem like a non-sequitur – don’t worry, I’ll tie it back in – I also just finished reading the teenage book series the Hunger Games. In the Hunger Games (a futuristic survival story), the protagonist Katniss hunts to feed her family, and she is a skilled fighter. After escape from what can most concisely be termed evil forces, Katniss returns to her village only . . . to agonize over men. In the series’ second novel, when Katniss isn’t debating which man she should marry, she is asking one of her two husband-candidates to validate her beliefs and actions.
Reader, you’re probably thinking: what on Earth do the Uniform Crime Report, a judicial decision prohibiting women from working in prisons, and the Hunger Games have in common? The short answer is, situation theory. When Catherine MacKinnon writes “the sexes are not equally situated in society with respect to their relative differences,” some might argue, “that’s outdated.” Yet consider the diverse evidence above, collected from sources published in 2011, 1989, and 2008. Violence against women is, as of now, still condoned by lax statutory definitions and paternalistic judicial opinions. In our works of fiction -- which should reflect our highest ideals -- female role models for the next generation succeed only when they fill male roles (hunter, fighter) and remain “measured according to correspondence with man, their equality judged by proximity to his measure.” The male-female gender hierarchy manifests both physically and intellectually. It is, though not overt, ubiquitous.
I believe that modern feminism’s most important task is to communicate this basic reality, one that I myself was skeptical of prior to enrolling in this class. For many, it’s easy to dismiss equality as something that we thank our Grandmothers for – as a fait accompli. Other times, "no structural analysis is possible, because everyone is too busy with self-analysis." (Judith Baer, Our Lives Before the Law.) What Feminist Legal Theory has made me see in almost everything that I encounter, from news stories to novels to conversations with friends, is just how entrenched anti-feminist attitudes are, and just how much they impact all women. Feminism hasn’t reached its goals; at best, it's halfway there.
By way of comments I’d welcome examples of books, TV shows, or practices in mainstream culture that you once accepted as normal, but have realized are anti-feminist since taking this class.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Today, without a thought, I got in my car, drove to the airport, flew to San Diego, and hailed a cab to arrive at a job interview. I did not for a moment stop to appreciate my freedom to move about the country without restraint, and without escort. Saudi women, apparently, do not enjoy this freedom.
Saudi women are not allowed to obtain driver’s licenses, nor are they allowed to hail cabs without a male escort. (Other restrictions on Saudi women include the inability to marry, divorce, or enter a public hospital without the permission of a male guardian.) The ban on travel reflects a deeply entrenched religious belief that women are prone to sin and, thus, must be restricted or escorted by a member of the allegedly morally superior sex. So, how do these women get around? They either rely on male relatives and friends, which I, personally, believe involves a constant test of patience and flexibility, or they hire drivers.
Presently, women all over Saudi Arabia are participating in an on-going mass protest against the ban on driving. These women, some with the support of progressive husbands, videotape themselves driving around in broad daylight (gasp!). The videos, posted online, draw hundreds of viewers and serve to increase awareness and draw international support against a discriminatory practice that has simply gone on for too long. Most of these brave activists are stopped, and told to go home.
One female driver, however, was sentenced to 10 lashes, ironically, just one day after King Abdullah, leader of Saudi Arabia, granted women the right to vote in the upcoming election (2015). King Abdullah has since revoked the sentence, but the ruling did not go unnoticed in the international community. Philip Luther, an Amnesty International deputy director commented: "Allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good, but if they are still going to face being flogged for trying to exercise their right to freedom of movement, then the king's much trumpeted 'reforms' actually amount to very little."
Interestingly, some Saudi women do not desire reform. This begs the question—is this practice of restricting a woman’s movement an integral part of Saudi culture; are we applying our own ethnocentric vision of equality to judge the accepted practice of a foreign nation? Rowdha Yousef, a strong-minded Saudi woman, recently started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, she had collected more than 5,400 signatures in support of continuing conservative practices like the one restricting women’s movements in the public sphere. In Yousef’s opinion, activists are rejecting their cultural heritage in exchange for Western values. Notably, Yousef may be the only Saudi female leading a campaign to perpetuate restrictions against women.
Female academics in Saudi Arabia, however, recognize a need for change, while still acknowledging the importance of culture. Reem Asaad, lecturer at a college in Saudi Arabia cites the incontrovertible facts: “In ‘economic participation and opportunity’ for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work.” Put this way, it seems only practical to allow women, and men, and any person who so desires, to seek gainful employment. And the obvious right to support and sustain oneself is meaningless without the means to travel to one’s place of work. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corps., hit the nail on the head at a speech he made in Saudi Arabia in 2007. To a comment that Saudi Arabia intended to be one of the Top 10 nations in the world in technology, Bill Gates responded, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”
Sunday, September 25, 2011
We have discussed many times in class that women are choosing to start families later in life. Whether or not the "when" is a woman's “choice” is debatable. But what is becoming more and more apparent is that men, too, are starting families later in life. Later than decades past. So what becomes of 20-somethings if they aren’t settling down and starting families? Numbers would suggest that due to the increase of women enrolled in and graduating, from college and other institutions of higher education, women are busy working. Not to say that 20-something men aren’t working, but what they aren’t doing, is maturing.
When it comes to 20-something men, women tend to have quite a few things to say. But 20-something women aren’t the only ones with criticism of our male peers. There appears to be a growing concern with what some call a “delayed adulthood.” Most of the chatter over the condition revolves around what we’ve already discussed: marriage and children. The mean age for first marriages amongst men is rising. That might not be such a bad thing, especially if it leads to less divorce. But what else might it mean?
One author, Kay Hymowitz, whose book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, suggests that a combination of social factors has given rise to a “pre-adulthood” for young men. As the title of her book suggests, she believes that because more women have sought higher education and entered traditionally male-dominated professions, boys are delaying entering manhood. This generation of 20-something men, she explains, enjoy more recreational time, exhibit a general lack of desire to get hitched, and have a tendency to shirk adult “responsibilities.” I do think it important to note that the “responsibilities” to which Hymowitz refers are based on very traditional notions of male and female roles. Regardless, her theory raises many questions.
I first read one of Hymowitz’s articles last year, in the Wall Street Journal. One of her concerns is that young professional women are going to have fewer choices for mates because 20-something men would rather play video games than have meaningful relationships. I do not necessarily disagree with Hymowitz (I have enough 20-something male friends to know that some of them have a deeper emotional connection with their Fantasy Football team than the women they date). What interests me more is her hypothesis that women’s professional success in the last few decades is what has led to a generation of male pre-adults.
I was having dinner with my mother and stepfather last weekend, and my stepfather mentioned that there has been an increase of female professionals in his line of business (he is a real estate developer). He noted that female project managers are becoming more common on large construction sites. Additionally, some of his professional peers have suggested that the reason that young female professionals are becoming more common is that they are “better” at what they do. He explained that in recent conversations with colleagues, there is a growing consensus that young men, especially recent graduates, are less responsible and competent than young female graduates.
This sentiment may very well be limited to my stepfather’s and his colleagues’ experience, but I started to think that there must be something else there. Hymowitz suggests that it is because of women’s success that young men are delaying adulthood. But I wonder if it’s not more intertwined than that. Women’s professional success may have created a generation of “boyish” men, but how has a generation of "pre-adults" then turned around and affected women? I would argue that, perhaps, it’s been a benefit to 20-something professional women. If what my stepfather said about female versus male graduates in the construction field is accurate, then it would seem that 20-something women may be looking at even greater professional success in other areas of business.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
The article placed a “comedic” spin on a Wall Street Journal article discussing a recent study that examined women with high-powered careers and the challenges they face in having a family. The study found that 43% of skilled Gen-X women, ages 33-46 years old, haven’t yet had children. It suggested that the pressures women face from demanding work schedules, career ambitions, heavy debt loads, and a weak economy force any childbearing plans to take a second seat to their career path.
This study seems to confirm our discussions regarding the enormous pressure women feel as working professionals. On one hand, there is the struggle to break barriers and overcome gender discrimination. On the other hand, society continues to maintain its cultural expectations of women as mothers. How do women overcome this dichotomy? This study seems to suggest that women must choose between one or the other.
Indeed, given the financial and emotional challenges that accompany a decision to have a child, the current economy greatly impacts the ability to have a family. But are we internally assuming that all women want to have a child early in their adult lives? Personally, I want to enjoy the present without the added pressures of raising a family. Even without law school, I would still not want children at this stage of my life. Many other women that I know do not want to have children until they reach their 30s. As much truth as there is behind the external pressures that constrict the decisions of professional working women, I also believe that our generation and the Gen-Xers are unlike the generations before us. Our generations are also choosing to delay the order of traditional life milestones and the results of doing so are just now becoming apparent. Certainly the demands of a career prevent many women from having a family. But I also wonder whether the 3,000 white-collared women surveyed were asked if they wanted to have children any sooner in their lives. Did some of the women choose to delay that milestone, similar to so many other decisions that our generations are making? What would the study look like then?
Moreover, I was somewhat surprised by the tone of the Above the Law article. For example, the author (a male) discusses the similarities between this study and the premise of the movie Idiocracy, in which smart people begin having fewer children than the unintelligent. After "imploring" women in Biglaw to have more children, he writes, "And dumb women, all across the world, are pumping out impoverished spawn as if there was an invisible being that lives in the sky who outlaws birth control." Nevermind the well-known statistic that impoverished communities have less access to birth control. And he closes the article with this gem, "I wouldn’t trade places with a career woman for anything. All indications are that it sucks. But we need these women to pass on their intelligence, their ambition, and their money to the next generation."
Certainly, we are well aware that the website is a “Legal Tabloid” filled with the latest legal news and gossip. Therefore, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the sarcastic overtones found within the article. And while I appreciate the author’s decision to shed light on this study, I found several comments to be over the top. Even in jest, it is these types of comments that perpetuate the gender binaries women have struggled for decades to overcome.
Friday, September 23, 2011
For my second blog post, I’d like to discuss the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The plight of Saudi women, like those of other many other Muslim and Arab women in the Middle East and North Africa, has been a topic which I have always found to be both perplexing and horrifying. According to Wikipedia, “all women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian. Women cannot vote or be elected to high political positions. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity.”
Amnesty International’s human rights report for 2011 states that “Women continued to face discrimination in law and in practice and to be subjected to domestic and other violence. The law does not give women equal status with men, and rules on male guardianship subordinate women to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and freedom of movement. This leaves women vulnerable to violence within the home, which may be committed by men with impunity.” Human Rights Watch stated, in its 2011 report that “Saudi Arabia strictly enforces gender segregation throughout the kingdom, including in work places, impeding women's full participation in public life…Women's unemployment rate is four times that of men…Women cannot work as judges or prosecutors. Promises by the Justice Ministry in February to draft a law allowing women lawyers to practice in court remained unmet.”
Even when compared to other repressive societies in the region and in the world, the daily indignities endured by Saudi women are shocking and an affront to our basic notions of human rights. The fact that such oppression is fundamentally unjust and should be abolished is not a controversial issue in most of the world. What is more controversial is the question of what we, on the outside, can do to help. We should also consider whether the majority of Saudi women desire the same freedoms women in many other countries enjoy.
One Saudi female journalist writes, “Non-Saudis presume to know what’s best for Saudis, like Saudis should modernize and join the 21th century or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya (long black cloak required of all women in Saudi Arabia) and be able to drive. And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture.” While it is true that we should take into account the cultural differences among different cultures, I think most will agree that there are certain fundamental rights, such as voting, driving, free movement and freedom of expression, that are universal and should be adopted in every society. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as if any fundamental changes will be occurring anytime soon, given the views prevailing among Saudi men and women.
UPDATE: Good news!
"Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, considered a reformer by the standards of his own ultraconservative kingdom, decreed on Sunday that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015."
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Roger Copeland once described dance as “the art of pure physical presence in which women are most fully reduced to and equated with their bodies.” The founding mothers of modern dance knew this all too well. Together, women such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Katharine Dunham, and others courageously rejected the constrained nature of classical ballet. Rather than torturing their bodies into the restricted constructs of a male-designed paradigm, these women embraced self-expression. They tore off their corsets, danced with bare feet, and allowed emotion, gravity, and breath to fuel their movements.
Outstanding male choreographers and dancers also participated in this movement. Yet, as Copeland highlights in his article “Why Women Dominate Modern Dance,” modern dance traces its roots to the efforts of some founding fathers and several founding mothers. The foundations of modern dance thus depart from the male-driven, male-dominated traditions of most other art forms.
Unsurprisingly, feminism and modern dance inherently intertwine. Women played a key role in the movement at the time of founding, and the post-modern and contemporary dancers of today continue the female legacy. Feminist concepts and ideals, whether intentional or not, influence the developments of modern dance and make their way into the repertoire of this art form.
Many of the early modern dance companies were comprised solely of female dancers. Consider, for example, Martha Graham’s company. The company began with several working women who attended Graham’s dance classes after work. The company remained all-female for over a decade. Graham also addressed common human experiences through pieces featuring women such as “Lamentation” and strong female characters such as the pioneer woman in “Frontier” and Joan of Arc in “Seraphic Dialogue.”
Modern dance choreographers also explored the sameness/difference aspects of feminism. Graham—a powerful, intimidating, yet warm character—invented an almost radical, sexual technique centered on the natural concept of contraction. In Dance Magazine, Marnie Thomas described the contraction as "essentially an exhale that curls the pelvis under and allows the chest to hollow inward. The body shapes itself as if embracing an enormous bubble, while allowing the audience to sense the completion of the circle." In contrast, choreographers such as Twyla Tharp created un-gendered, intellectual pieces that focused the audience on the dance rather than on the sexual aspects of the female figure. Over time, just as many female members of society began to re-embrace femininity, choreographers such as Tharp created pieces reflecting a realization that the same stage could showcase the differences and similarities of the genders.
These inspirational women most definitely played by their own rules
However, an inherent irony exists within the female-influenced, explorative world of modern and contemporary dance. Rejecting the confines of ballet failed to change the reality of the dancer’s self-sacrifice. Dancers are often required to reject their personal preferences and identities in order to successfully portray the character envisioned by the choreographer.
In the inclusive, non-judgmental environment of the 2003-2007 UC Berkeley Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies Department, dancers met daily to study modern dance technique. These dancers included individuals of all genders, shapes, sizes, cultures, and politics. The space fostered a community dynamic characterized by respect, trust, acceptance, and inspiration. Within this environment, I fearlessly flung my body into the trusted arms of fellow dancers; improvised with males, females, and transgendered individuals; and grew to appreciate the beauty of movement from vastly different body-types.
Yet, in 2007, I was reminded of the commonly submissive, restricted role of a dancer—even a modern dancer. A well-respected choreographer selected a number of dancers to perform in her final piece with the department. YLC, an LGBT individual; myself; and a few other dancers were chosen to perform the piece. At the first company meeting, the choreographer asked us to agree to the terms of an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“AFTRA”) contract. This particular contract included a term stating that the dancers must agree to wear the costumes, make-up, and hair styles selected by the choreographer. None of us anticipated any issues that might require the enforcement of this contract.
After the first on-stage rehearsal, though, the choreographer decided that all the women must shave their legs and underarms for the performance. This struck a chord with YLC, for she was struggling with gender identification in her personal life. In fact, today “she” now goes by “he.” YLC’s hair was central to the outward expression of her self-identification. Subjected to the contract, and respectful of the choreographer’s vision, YLC—albeit reluctantly—removed the hair.
Thus, modern dance frequently represents a female-driven realm that breaks boundaries, embraces freedom, and reflects changing societal mores. But, nothing is perfect. The modern dancers may still need to wear pink dresses, apply fake eyelashes, and shave their legs to achieve the choreographer’s vision.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
From the Domestic Violence Resource Center:
One in four women has experienced domestic violence (physical, sexual) in her lifetime. Three in four Americans know personally someone who is or who has been a victim of domestic violence. 30% of Americans say that they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or close intimate in the past year.
Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence. The poorer the household the higher the rate, and African-American women experience far higher rates of domestic violence than do their white counterparts.
Also consider that these statistics do not include the significant number of women who do not report domestic violence to the authorities.
Violence by men against women is a troubling and persistent reality. I knew this. But I knew it too often in the abstract. Two items this week grounded it in truth, and alerted me to the frustrating fact that many of these women --those who survive the violence and those who don't-- do not get to choose their fate. It gets chosen for them.
The first is my viewing of Precious, a piece of fiction, but a fact-based film about the real lasting impact of violence and sexual abuse in the home. It also, in subtle ways, a story about America, and American women. I watched the film last night. The young woman (Gabourey Sidibe) who plays the title character is captivating. Her acting is true, her emotional scenes completely honest and unrestrained. She acts when she isn't speaking, and she never breaks character.
The title character is a 16-year-old, living in Harlem, still in junior high, and pregnant with her second child. Her father (no longer in the picture) is the father of both of them. Her mother, in a strong performance by Monique, allowed the sexual abuse to happen since Precious was at a very early age, and she resents Precious for bearing more children than her husband "gave her." Now, angry and scraping by on the scraps of welfare, her mother dishes out a daily torrent of verbal and physical abuse against her weakened daughter.
Precious accepts this because she knows no other reality. She knows it is not right. She knows she does not deserve it. She knows there is another way. Yet her reality has become so hard, so grounded, that she sees this "other way" in the form of glamorized, stylized distant fantasies -- as a celebrity R & B singer, or an actress on the red carpet. Fans covet her, and the men are kind and adoring. This is her escape.
She speaks to us, in voice-over, about a world of closed doors: "There's always something wrong with these tests. These tests is painting a picture of me with no brain. These tests is painting a picture of my mother, my whole family, as less than dumb. Just ugly black grease to be wiped away. Sometimes I wish I was dead... I'd be okay, I guess. Cause I'm lookin' up. [Laughing] Lookin' up for a piano to fall."
Precious finds reason to look up, in the form of an alternative school and an impassioned teacher that sees in her a bright spot and a need for love. She also finds strength in commitment to her newborn, which acts as a powerfully ironic symbol of her freedom from her family oppression.
The transition, as played out in the movie is a bit sudden; and it pushes Mother, hastily and perhaps unrealistically, to the sidelines of Precious' life. But it is a genuine change, and suggests promise for our heroine. I resist the cruel impulse to tell you the ending.
The second item is a personal story. This story was told to our Feminist Legal Theory class two weeks ago by Professor Pruitt. It is elaborated here. It is a touching reminiscence of a standout woman and former King Hall student. I will not add much to it, because to do so would be to subtract from its impact. You should read it. The post is a demonstration of the powerful effect we can have on each other. It is also a reminder of how a woman's life is precious -- men's violence can be swift and sudden, and it can be completely and maddeningly inexplicable.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
It seems like an almost too-well-planned-to-be-coincidental moment for this bill to be proposed in the legislature. At the same time as the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help, is playing nationwide in a theater near you, a bill recognizing many of the issues faced by the African American maids in The Help was playing out on a state-wide stage in California. While I intended to read the book in its entirety before watching the film, I gave up last weekend after realizing that I had neither the time nor the patience to wait any longer.
I will attempt to summarize the storyline of the film without giving too much away. If you intend to watch and don't want spoilers, I suggest you skip these next four paragraphs. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the beginning of the 1960s, the story focuses almost exclusively on a group of (mostly) young white women, all members of the Junior League, and the (mostly) middle-aged African American women who work as "the help" in each of their homes. As described by the iconoclastic main white character, Skeeter, the domestic workers serve as the mothers to the town's white children--feeding them, changing them, nurturing them, teaching them--until the white children reach adulthood and in turn employ and subordinate their former substitute "mothers." The cruel white women pay "the help" less than minimum wage to cook, clean, babysit, and virtually run their households. If they "misbehave," or otherwise embarass their white bosses, the help are not only fired, but their former bosses spread lies about their behavior throughout the Junior League so that they are effectively rendered un-employable in the town at large. The cruelty is overtly and unapologetically racist. One of the white women even starts a campaign to mandate that all white households have a separate bathroom for their black servants, to prevent contamination of the whites with "their diseases."
Skeeter convinces one, and eventually, many of the women working as "the help" to speak up and tell their stories, in what she eventually publishes as an anonymous book, entitled (unsurprisingly) The Help. Of particular interest to Skeeter is the fact that while many of these women are busy raising other women's children, their own are neglected and forced to fight for themselves. The protagonist, Aibileen, even tells her about starting work as a maid at the age of 14, dropping out of school to help pay her family's bills.
The book is a resounding success, and not only are many of the white women in Jackson shamed into pretending that the book is about another town, but Skeeter shares the profits with each woman who contributed her story.
Even though the women seem to have developed their voices, the end of the film depicts Aibileen getting fired for contributing to the book, knowing she will never be hired again in Jackson. As she walks away from the house of her former employer, the young white girl she had been caring for is screaming and crying for her to return. The girl's inept mother is last seen holding her second child, appearing not to understand how to hold him or provide him with basic care. As Aibileen walks away, she realizes she has found her voice and decides she will be a writer.
The Help has been characterized by friends of mine as being something akin to "racism light." As an Ethnic Studies concentrator in undergrad, I couldn't help but view the film through a lens that was hyper aware to implications on race and class (and, partially because of this class, gender). Indeed, by the time I left the theater, I was furious. This film was witty, it was funny, it made me laugh, it made me cry. It made all of the (mostly white, female) audience laugh and cry as well. But it also appeared to emphasize the fact that the time and circumstances pictured were then, and this is now.
Thank goodness we no longer live in a world like the Jim Crow South! How wonderful that we are a fully integrated society!
Except... we aren't. Everywhere I go throughout California, it seems there is a similar divide between domestic workers and their employers. Employers are (usually) white. Domestic workers in California are almost exclusively people of color--even more specifically, Latin@. As the text of proposed AB 899 states, "The vast majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants and are particularly vulnerable to unlawful employment practices and abuses." How often do we see janitors, gardeners, maids, and nannies who are white? Not often. Although many in the media would like to portray AB 899 as the "babysitter bill," most of the employees the bill targets are not white teenagers hired to watch the children one night a week so the parents can take some time for themselves.
Who will AB 899 affect? People of color. Yes, white employers may have to pay them a bit more. But, if there is no regulation of domestic labor, how can we ensure that people with the means to employ domestic workers are not treating them akin to the treatment pictured in The Help?
More importantly, The Help does emphasize the importance of the roles of domestic workers in their employers' lives. They enable men and women to focus on their professional careers. They enable parents to share more equally in only one shift, without burdening either--and usually the woman--with a second one.
And, in California, it appears that a line of employment that is almost exclusively for people of color continues to be exempt from basic protections that would prevent abuse and recognize the value of domestic work. Unsurprisingly, a search on google of "Assembly Bill 899" and "white," or "race," or "people of color" or "Latino" or any other amalgamation of a word which would indicate that anyone has discussed the bill from this perspective turn up nothing remotely akin to the above arguments.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Taking a look back, women have been in comedic roles for the better part of the 20th century (Lucille Ball, Betty White, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin), but they still don’t get the respect they deserve, either on the streets or at the comedy clubs. In May 2011, Rosanne Barr wrote a scathing article for New York Magazine which details how her sitcom Roseanne (the first female-created sitcom) was hijacked by ABC, which essentially refused to name her in the credits as the show’s creator. Instead, the credits ran: “Created by Matt Williams.” What’s more, she reports how women were pitted against each other to fight for raises and were rarely promoted to writer, how an all-male team of writers created lines that were “what women would say,” and how when Rosanne climbed to the No. 1 spot in 1988 she was sent a chocolate in the shape of a #1, whereas male stars of No. 1 shows were typically sent new Porsches. But that was the 80s, right?
Sadly, Barr’s article dovetails with Tina Fey’s experience as a woman in comedy in the 90s and 2000s. In her recent (and very funny) autobiography, Bossypants. Fey recalls how in 1994, while with the improv troupe Second City in Chicago, she and Amy Poehler were not allowed to be on stage alone together - since a skit without a man wouldn’t go over well with audiences, and there wouldn’t be enough “material.” They had rules that there were never to be more women on stage than men in a given skit - the exact ratio required was typically 4 men to 2 women. Years later in 2004, Saturday Night Live’s popular segment “Weekend Update” was co-anchored by two women (Fey and Poehler!) for the first time. While Fey’s writing for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock (her own show on NBC) has received countless awards (including Emmys and Golden Globes), Bossypants reveals that the road to such success was one ridden with sexism and prejudice. Today, Fey and Poehler are nearly alone at the top as women in comedy.
Most recently, attention on women in comedy was revamped by the popularity of the movie Bridesmaids. Starring Kristen Wiig, another female SNL comedian, Bridesmaids is one of the best-reviewed comedies of the past several years, yet its praise is always cognizant of the largely female cast; most reviews seem to note their surprise with how funny women can be (who would’ve thought?!). Bridesmaids has grossed over $168 million, yet it is near the top of the list of top grossing movies never to make it to the No. 1 spot (the rest of that list is largely comprised of children’s movies). An LA Times review praised the film’s success given that, “R-rated female-centric, gal-pal entertainments don't exactly top studio wish lists.” Indeed, while Bridesmaids has been lauded as “easily the funniest movie of 2011,” it drew only a 33% male audience.
Another critic praised the film for turning the boys’ club of comedy on its head: “It is not insignificant to note that Bridesmaids, in all its outrageous, profane, bawdy glory, is largely the work of women -- written by, co-produced by, and starring a cast almost entirely made up of women. What results is not a feeling of ‘girls playing at a boys game,’ but rather the girls stealing the game and reinvigorating it with quirky energy, sharper comedic insight, and subtle depth.”
So if women have been succeeding in the big comedy business of Hollywood, why does the notion that women aren’t funny persist? One Australian comedian reported the most common reasons people gave in response to why they thought that women weren’t funny:
- Funny women only talk about relationships, vaginas, tampons, emotions, family, domesticity, personal problems, [insert 1950s idea of women’s conversational topics here].
- Funny women aren’t attractive.
- Funny women are aggressive.
- Funny women are too polite to be funny.
- Funny women lack confidence.
Another point that was frequently made was that women being crude (as comedians typically are) was unattractive and that men didn’t like seeing women in a crass role. The aforementioned list exposes how men seem to dislike women acting too much like men, and/or that in order to be funny women need to act like men. Women are placed in a double bind: when they act like men, it’s gross, but when they act like women, they’re not funny. Just like in other work environments, women are forced to toe the line between being too “manly” and being too feminine for men’s work - neither result yielding much more than unrelenting criticism or qualified compliments (“good, for a woman”).
This comes back to the sameness/difference debate: Should women be trying to convince audiences that they are just like men, or should they be promoting their own flavor of comedy? Each path presents its own problems for feminism and exposes opportunities to keep women below men in the comedy business. For if women are just like men, they need to play the game by men’s rules, a game at which they will inevitably fail. And if they brand their own style of humor, they’re relegated to the WNBA of comedy (the unpopular, “separate but equal” accommodation to feminism). And so women who do comedy play by men’s rules, and it becomes apparent that men want women as their audience, not as their rivals.
People often cite a difference in men’s and women’s senses of humor as the reason why women are perceived as less funny than men. A Stanford University School of Medicine study found that men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use a similar part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition, as well as the part of the brain involved in language processing, but men and women interpreted what they found funny differently. But even if women and men do find different things funny, that rhetoric still goes on to conclude that women aren’t as funny as men, as opposed to concluding that men aren’t as funny as women. As in other male/female comparisons, men appear to be the yardstick by which women are measured. In turning to nurture over nature, the reasoning seems to come more into focus. As Kate Sanborn put it in her 1885 book, The Wit of Women, “What woman does not risk being called sarcastic and hateful if she throws the merry dart or engages in a little sharp-shooting. No, no, it’s dangerous—if not fatal.” Perhaps even today men feel threatened by funny women.
As with other arenas where women attempt to enter a man’s domain, a disproportionate amount of attention is placed on looks and attractiveness. As a Vanity Fair article very candidly confessed, “[My] argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians…Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” A response to the piece noted how in the past women were simply not funny, then women couldn’t be funny if they were pretty, and now female comedians need to be pretty - even sexy - to succeed. Indeed, Tina Fey was put on camera only after losing 30 lbs, while male comedians like Chris Farley, Jack Black, and Seth Rogan don’t seem to be losing any work because of their weight.
While women in comedy continue to endure particularly harsh critiques simply because they are women trying to make it in the old boys’ club of comedy, funny is becoming closer to the norm for women these days. But then again, women are more prevalent in everything these days. Unfortunately, the trend is showing that women in comedy must increasing rely on sex appeal to get ahead, lest we forget that the entertainment industry is still controlled by men. Fortunately, it also seems as though women are more inclined to ignore the claims that they aren’t funny and to allow their success to speak for itself. In the end, I anticipate that it will be these women who will have the last laugh. In the meantime, it looks like women in comedy will continue to work overtime to overcome prevalent sexism, and this is no laughing matter.
Below is my response the fellowship question:
Upon reflection, I find my response interesting for two reasons. First, I unconsciously chose to write about a personal challenge that has become a professional challenge over time. Strange enough, my greatest struggle in life is negotiating the principles my parents and family instilled in me with the need to be a strong and independent person - not only for myself, but for those I aim to serve as an attorney. The curious aspect of this dynamic is that until I was forced to articulate this struggle (via answering the above fellowship question), I failed to recognize its key players: traditional notions of Latina/o gender roles and feminism.
What is remarkable to me is that for the past decade I have been engaging in a serious and personally deep negotiation of the conflicting features of Latina/o gender roles and feminism without clearly identifying them. There is no doubt I have had my suspicions from time to time of who my "masked" players are, but sadly I never took the time to properly investigate. Instead, whenever I experienced an inner conflict between the two, I bit my lip, put my head down, and simply carried on. I chose never to question the sources of my conflict.
I attribute this lack of curiosity in part to the power of the traditional Latina/o roles I was raised with. As noted in my response to the question, I understood questioning things as being synonymous with being confrontational. Although I would not have been questioning a male or an authority figure in this instance, to question the conflict within me would still be risking confrontation with something. A woman is patient, and flexible. She works with what she is given. I have this conflict. I am supposed to simply work through it.
This passive line of logic has dramatically changed over time. Furthermore, now that I have identified the masked players in the greatest challenge in my life, I feel more empowered than ever. I am more comfortable and prepared to intelligently confront these challenges. While discussing my response with a colleague, I was comforted to hear her echo many of the same challenges. Although I am sure there are other women out there who work through the same issues, I hope there are some women who do not. I would like to hear their responses and how they negotiate the tension between traditional gender notions of women in a male dominated legal profession.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Rising in the ranks as the only female candidate in the Republican primaries, Michelle Bachmann represents how far women have come since our bra-burning days. However, she is no feminist. In fact, women's groups like the National Organization for Women have expressed concern that “having Bachmann as the first female president would actually be a setback for women rather than a victory.” That may be true- Bachmann opposes abortion, and even more shockingly, believes that wives should be “submissive to their husbands.” But, by choosing to strategically alienate herself from women’s rights groups, Bachmann may be shooting herself in the foot.
Timothy Kelly, reporter for the International Business Times suggests that female presidential candidates are subject to a different, perhaps more intensive, type of scrutiny then male candidates. He observes that both Palin and Bachmann attact public criticism for “verbal gaffes” that male politicians like Joe Biden managed to escape. One study on sexism in United States presidential campaigns reveals that sexism towards women candidates is still very much alive in the media and among voters. For instance, voters are more likely to focus on appearance, clothing, emotional state (remember when Hilary Clinton cried?!) and character than on a woman’s position on the issues. Stories about women candidates are also more likely to mention children and marital status. While these observations may seem innocuous, they have the effect of pigeon-holing women into stereotypical roles that are not typically associated with leadership. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the unfortunate double standard that female candidate face: “Women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine . . . who succeed in politics and public life will be scrutinized under a different lens from that applied to successful men.”
Bachmann has already been the target of sexist criticism. In August 2011, a Newsweek article portrayed Bachmann as a wide-eyed, crazy “Queen of Rage.” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women came to Bachmann’s defense explaining: "Her policy positions are diametrically opposed to NOW's positions and I intend to defeat her. That's my job. But no male politician is treated this way. As much as I disagree with everything she stands for, she is a serious viable candidate for the United States presidency and there is no male viable candidate who has ever been treated this way."
. . . If Bachmann is going to endure scrutiny and criticism simply for being female, she may as well try to get some back up.