Friday, May 1, 2015

Veteran Tammy Duckworth sums up the conversation about women in combat, perfectly!

This week the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee heard 18 hours of debate before approving a $612 billion defense policy bill that will now be send to the full House for consideration. Part of the debate centered on the role of women in combat forces, an issue that has garnered significant press attention in the last few years, and has been thoughtfully written about on this blog.

It is hard to think of more sexist workplace than the United States military. It is the epitome of masculine culture, where strength, aggressiveness, and competition are encouraged and admired. It is thus unsurprising that in such a hyper-masculine culture, discrimination or devaluation of women has occurred within the U.S. military since its inception. But the truth is that women have served valuable roles in the military since the American Revolution. In the last 50 years, women’s presence in the U.S. military has grown steadily. 

Yet, despite increasing numbers of women serving in the military, a discriminatory Department of Defense “Ground Combat Exclusion policy” has remained in place to restrict women from artillery, armor, and infantry combat roles.

Serving in the U.S. military is honorable. We respect our service people and veterans; we call them heroes. It can be a good way of life­—a way to get an education, see the world, make a good living wage, and earn a retirement. The problem with these discriminatory combat exclusion policies is that it prevents women from having the same opportunities for advancement in the military. Promotion in the military, including to the very highest posts, is based on combat experience. So, as Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, states:

If women remain restricted to combat service and combat service support specialties, we will not see a woman as Commandant of the Marine Corps, or CENTCOM commander, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus women in the military are being held back simply because they are women. Such an idea is not only completely at odds with military ethics, but is distinctly un-American.
In May, 2012, two female soldiers filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the combat limits. This set off a chain of events that has led to significant changes in military policy over the past three years. First, in January of 2013 the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended that the combat exclusion policy be lifted, noting:
[T]he time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.
In response, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially lifted the combat policy exclusion. The Secretary’s action gave the services three years to figure out how to integrate women into all combat roles without reducing combat readiness, worsening sexual harassment rates and breaking women’s bodies by assignments for which they don’t qualify.

Since the ban on women in combat has lifted, each branch of the armed services has been “experimenting” with women in their combat troops. 60 Minutes ran a story titled A Few Good Women about the Marines trying to recruit women into their Infantry Officer School. The story highlights a “14 hour Combat Endurance Test” that requires numerous tasks over a 16 mile course.

Two things struck me about the story. First, I simply don’t understand why accommodations cannot be made for females. Is the military unable to recognize that women may have different strengths than men, and that by allowing them to be part of a combat troop but only carry a 50 lb. pack instead of a 100 lb. pack, that may add value? The military needs to re-examine its demands. Perhaps the rigors are justified, perhaps they are antiquated. If the demands are justified, then fine. Certainly some women will be able to meet them, and they should be allowed to do so. If they are outdated to the modern reality of combat, then adjustments should be made. It seems to me that the physical requirements exist just to discriminate against women.

Second, the males within the military are very resistant to women being part of their club. The brave woman interviewed for their story, Second Lieutenant Melissa Cooling, flat out says that the men she is training with don’t want her there. General Dempsey suggested allowing women into combat units may ease the military's ongoing problem with sexual harassment: "I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally." I hope that is the case, but for now the focus by many seems to be that women cannot meet the physical demands and have no place in combat. There doesn't appear to be acceptance. The ad nauseam debate in the House last week about women's place in combat seems to prove this. The discussion still is not ‘how do we make this happen,’ but rather, ‘this shouldn't happen because woman cannot handle it.’

One Congresswoman, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), summed up this debate, perfectly in my opinion. Duckworth served in a combat capacity during her service in Iraq. She flew combat missions as a Blackhawk pilot and lost both her legs when her helicopter was hit by a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) during a 2004 mission. Since then, she’s made a full comeback, successfully ran for Congress, was appointed by President Obama to be one of the top officials in the Department of Veteran Affairs, and is now running for the Senate. Her social media response to the House Armed Services Committee debate about women in combat was this:
When Members of Congress debate women in combat, I look down at the stumps of my legs & wonder, where do they think I was - in a bar fight?
Exactly, Congresswoman! That says it all. Women can do it, and more importantly, they HAVE done it. It’s time to end the doubt and allow all female soldiers that want to be in combat the right to try, the same as the men do.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Psychosocial theories of self-esteem and aggression: Why gender matters

In sociology, researchers have long known that men and women tend to cope with problems in their lives differently due to socialization. Men will often blame external events or another person for a problem, while women often blame themselves. Predictably, this can take a heavy toll on women's self-image, and may cause episodes of depression.
On this blog, we have already discussed the fact that women have higher rates of clinical depression diagnoses. A new study published in Current Biology presents evidence that stress-related depression can cause changes in the body which function as a coping mechanism. To discover this result, the genes of thousands of women with recurrent major depression were compared with the genes of healthy control participants.What is interesting, and sad, about the study is that the women with histories of stress-related depression often had suffered forms of childhood adversity such as sexual abuse. Were they more prone to developing recurrent depression due to internalizing hardships or trauma? Perhaps, and a study on the correlation between stress and women's heart disease posits that "psychobiological" responses do differ according to gender.

Understanding how women are internally beating themselves up would help explain stress processing and what women can do to change harmful habits. Psychologists state that society's discouragement of any kind of aggression in women can lead to their turning aggression inward on themselves. Also, it can become "relational aggression," which means that women become aggressive against other women. Making other women into targets, rather than men, could often be easier due to women being conditioned to not openly fight back. Another weakness that women face in relational problems is that they do not see themselves as part of a group, causing perceptions of more stress. Sexism, of course, is probably contributing to this issue with glass ceilings, media under-representation, and objectification. In an odd way, one article advising women on how to stop berating themselves uses common stereotypes like "good girl," "doing addict," and "overly optimistic, partying cheerleader."

Gendered responses in managing self-esteem and aggression also affect men's lives, because while blaming an external event sounds like it would preserve the self-image, it does not always do so. Verbal and emotional abuse can appear in relationships due to men's aggression generally being tolerated more by society. Also, a study of the effects of success and failure on male-female relationships showed that men consciously did not perceive losses or boosts of explicit self-esteem based on women's success or failure. However, implicit self-esteem was affected. One must question the influence of sexism when the men in the study lost self-esteem when their partners were successful in certain tasks, and registered higher self-esteem when their partners failed. To conclude, when there are media lines such as "unequal doesn't mean unhappy," everyone should remember that gender roles do seem to play a factor in some kinds of unhappiness.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Women in comics

Back in March, DC Comics solicited their June 2015 comic book releases. In tribute to the 75th anniversary of their most iconic super-villain, the Joker, DC arranged for Joker-themed variant covers for all of their monthly publications. Unfortunately, a large number of fans and feminist bloggers flocked to Twitter to protest the variant cover planned for issue #41 for DC’s Batgirl series.

On the cover, the Joker is physically restraining Batgirl, whose eyes are filled with tears and fright. The villain, holding a gun, is applying one of his infamous “Joker grins” to the heroine. Although a number of the month’s variant covers show the clown terrorizing various heroes, the Joker and Batgirl have a particularly horrific and sensitive history. The cover heavily references arguably the most famous Joker story of all time, one told in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. In it, the Joker kidnaps Barbara Gordon (unbeknownst to him, Batgirl’s alter ego), shoots her in the spine, paralyzing her from the waist down, and presumably rapes her. Afterwards, he takes pictures of her bruised, undressed body and sends them to her father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Despite the Joker’s eventually defeat by the Batman, Barbara Gordon’s character spent the following 20 years in a wheelchair (this development was recently undone).

A large, vigorous debate – at least for a relatively niche market – arose. Critics of the cover raised two main issues: 1) the cover glorifies violence against women; and 2) the fear depicted in Batgirl’s eyes reduced her to a damsel-in-distress. Surely, they argued, a male superhero would not be robbed of his dignity in the same way. The backlash resulted in DC cancelling of the cover (a decision even supported by the cover artist himself). To some extent, this move proved just as controversial among readers.

According to Time Magazine’s Cathy Young:
Sexism in popular culture is a valid concern. But when feminist criticism becomes an outrage machine that chills creative expression, it’s bad for feminism and bad for female representation. Making artists, writers, filmmakers, and even audiences walk on eggshells for fear of committing thought crime against womanhood is no way to encourage quality art or enjoyable entertainment — not to mention the creation of good female characters.
But to be fair, the comic book industry has not done a great job in creating “good female characters,” historically. And left to its own devices, it’s unclear whether it was ever going to get any better. Throughout the years, women were commonly written into stories as sexual objects that would need saving from super-villains on a monthly basis. Even as women’s empowerment and super-heroines became more prominent in comic books during the 1990s, they were typically depicted with hyper-sexualized bodies in skin-tight suits, big hair and high heels.

It would probably shock no one today that women remain under-represented in the mainstream superhero genre. Although there have been huge strides (Did you know that the comic book Thor is currently a woman?), there is nothing resembling gender equality – either in terms of characters or in terms of creative talent. This is despite the fact that women make up nearly half of all attendees at comic book conventions.

Looking at the titles slated for release in July 2015, only about 10 out of the 83 (12 percent) Marvel Comics issues have a titular female protagonist. Over at DC Comics, it is 11 out of 76 (14 percent). In contrast, Marvel is scheduled to publish 30 male-led titles to DC’s 38. For someone who has followed the industry since the early-1990s, these numbers actually represent a huge improvement. Just more progress needs to be made to excise the sexism in what has generally been a boy’s club.

If you’re a fan of films, you’ve probably noticed that superhero movies have been dominating the box office for quite a few years now. And despite a few notable flops (e.g., Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Josh Brolin’s Jonah Hex, etc.), it doesn’t look like the super-powered gravy train is about to quit any time soon. Late last year, both Marvel and DC addressed one of the growing concerns among their fans – Will see any female-led superhero films?

At the time, the only super-heroine to make her way onto the big screen in the new universe was Black Widow. And despite her competence in a fight, she has so far been used as a trope – being a romantic interest for Iron Man in Iron Man 2, then for Captain America in The Winter Soldier, and now for the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The actors portraying Captain America and Hawkeye jokingly called her a “slut” during an interview as a way to explain the way her character has been used, something they apologized for last week.

At the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel responded with plans to release Captain Marvel in July 2018, and DC finally planned to give us our first Wonder Woman-led movie in June 2017. Additionally, Marvel will premiere a female-led series on Netflix later this year. Somewhat similarly, we will also see the first black male-led films of the new universes – Marvel’s Black Panther in 2017, and DC’s Cyborg in 2020.

Still, a lot of soul-searching needs to happen in the superhero industry, as well as in Hollywood generally. Like Disney’s animated movies, superhero movies have historically left a lot to be desired in how women are portrayed in their stories. Tokenism is simply not good enough anymore. Hopefully, they’re up to the challenge.

Minor's Prostitution in Switzerland Banned in 2013

In Europe, there is still a debate regarding whether prostitution should be legalized or not. I also have some difficulty to decide between the two principal arguments. On one side, legalization allows a better protection of sex workers, which is more than necessary regarding the danger of this occupation and the abuses that are committed. On the other side, I can’t see it otherwise than an exploitation of human beings that should be banned. Whereas the discussion is complex, it appears much easier to decide when we are talking about minors’ prostitution. The answer seems clear: children should be legally protected from prostitution. If someone would have asked me five years ago if the prostitution of minors was legal, I would have sworn that it was not possible in Switzerland … And I would have been wrong. Indeed, until 2013, the prostitution of minors aged between 16 and 18 was legal.

How that could be possible in 2010 in a western, supposedly developed nation? That seems crazy, but it was possible due to two factors combined together. First, prostitution is legal, contrary to the US, and only the forced prostitution is illegal. Second, the age of consent, which is the age at which a person is deemed legally competent to consent to have sexual intercourses, is fixed at 16 years old, as it is in most of US states.

Fortunately, in 2010, The Swiss Federal Council, approved the 2007 Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (or “Lanzarote Convention”), which took effect on July 1st, 2010. The modification of the Swiss Penal Code necessary to respect the terms of the convention was adopted in September 2013 and took effect on July 4th, 2014, which means legislators took 4 years to produce a law stating that requiring the services of minor prostitutes is a crime.

This situation was qualified as “ gap in the law” when it came to the attention of the public through the media, but I can’t prevent myself from thinking we did not legislate on that earlier because it was mostly a feminine problem. As often, these questions take years to solve and don’t seem to be taken seriously as a real problem.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Women, patents, and innovation

The fact that we need more women in the sciences has been discussed many times before on this blog. See the previous posts here, here, and here. Yet these questions remain: how badly is sexism hurting scientific progress? How do we measure innovation?

One way of measuring innovation and conferring recognition is awarding patents. So, how are women faring at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)? The National Bureau of Economic Research found in 2012 that women hold 7.5% of all patents, and 5.5% of commercial patents. The gap between men and women is not due to a lack of women in hard sciences and engineering. Only 7% of the gap can be explained by that observation. It was stated that more representation in those fields would not make a difference absent other changes. While the lack of women in electrical and mechanical engineering, along with design and development, accounts for 40% of the gap, 29% is due to women being younger than their male counterparts in patent-intensive fields.

Many individuals became encouraged when The National Women's Business Council released a report that found women had doubled their share of patents in the last 22 years. Women hold 18% of the patents filed since 1990, and the number of patents granted to women increased by 35% in 2010. However, some researchers claim that the data used in these reports has too many problematic elements to be accurate. Gender on patent applications is indirectly sourced, and aggregate USPTO data may have been used incorrectly. Regardless of how women's patenting achievements are measured, it is agreed that women are closing the gap, but they are not at men's levels.

Helen Anderson and Mindee Hardin, patent holders of products for busy mothers, say that women need to disregard discouragement, and believe in themselves. Women have higher participation in trademarks, and the USPTO now has its first woman director, Michelle Lee. But the lack of a peer network in some areas is still a problem. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) acknowledges that women also tend to avoid commercialization, have less access to venture capital, and contend with laws that favor men. Also, women are often employees, instead of employers, in research and development teams. Service patents, which are awarded to the employer, would thus reflect disparities within companies.

If women are not on par with men's patenting rates, what of innovation? Whether patents are indicative of innovative progress is questioned, and even the definition of innovation has been criticized. Innovation is assessed by technological and industrial standards, and the term could be excluding many "feminine" improvements in human welfare. Therefore, women's contributions could be difficult to measure.

To end this post, here is an interesting account of Elizabeth Magie, the feminist who invented and patented the game of Monopoly. Magie also made headlines in the early 1900's for advertising herself for sale as "a young woman American slave" in order to make a statement about women's position during that time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hashtags, feminism, and social media

It is undeniable that social media plays an increasingly important role in mobilizing support for causes and campaigns. It has become an important platform for presidential elections, and will soon be saturated with gendered commentary following Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement to run for President. After all, unlike Republican candidates Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz – who all announced their run in speeches and rallies – Hillary Clinton recently released a video on social media to announce her run. Thus, the question remains: how does the use of social media impact women?

As Nisha Chittal recently stated, “a new wave of feminism is here, and the most powerful weapon is the hashtag.” #Askhermore trended during this season’s award shows, encouraging reporters to ask female celebrities other questions besides what they were wearing. #Notbuyingit trended during the Super Bowl in an effort to call out sexist ads. And #whyIstayed trended after a talking-head asked a survivor of a domestic violence scandal why she stayed, prompting other survivors to share their own personal stories on social media. And the list goes on.

Chittal goes on to explain how social media has democratized feminism, making it accessible to anyone with internet access and the desire to fight patriarchy. In a sense, she describes how the Internet is able to negate spatiality, creating solidarity among women nationwide, which allows for a more effective space for public dialogue.

However, despite Chittal’s optimism, her argument isn’t entirely convincing, because at the end of the day, the Internet is a double-edged sword. Women can champion causes by using the Internet as a public forum, but that doesn’t mean the public won’t respond. And unfortunately the public seems to exist in a very patriarchal and misogynist form.

A recent study done by Sydney University found that women’s voices are marginalized on the Internet. Women make up only between 3 and 35 percent of comments on the Internet. The professor who conducted the study stated that these findings are consistent with research about women’s voice in public spaces—spaces that are consistently dominated by men. And more over, she stated the imbalance seems to be driven by everyday gender dynamics, in which men routinely dominate women.

So if men are dominating the conversation on the Internet, what exactly are they saying? In a recent Op-Ed, Ashley Judd illustrates what can happen to women who express unpopular opinions on social media by describing her own experience of receiving responses that sexualize, objectify, insult, degrade, and threaten physical violence. After receiving such backlash in response to an unpopular comment about a March Madness basketball game, she stated in the context of twitter, “what happened to me is the devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet. Online harassers use the slightest excuse (or no excuse at all) to dismember our personhood.” And she has a point.

If you read through some of the hateful, sexist tweets Judd received in response to her comment about a basketball game, you might think her particular experience is particularly extreme. It is not like every single woman who posts something about feminism on the Internet is going to receive responses that threaten violent sexual assault, right? The point is, I’m not sure we should be praising social media just yet. It is an incredible medium to garner support and spread information, and we should not refrain from using it out of fear for negative responses. But it’s important to keep in mind that as a public forum, it reinforces the fact that the public still responds to women with patriarchy and misogyny. And a response only takes one anonymous tweet.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Women Members of the Feminist Legal Theory Blog Have Only First Name

My history with feminism began very early. I grew up in a pretty patriarchal familial environment. I had two older brothers. Really early, as a child, I mostly had to face the basic and sexist attacks of my brothers. I instinctively fought against them, with the only tools I had at this time, my personal reflection. I proclaimed myself as a feminist. At 10, I also stated that, “I want to become a lawyer in order to defend women’s rights”. I received some support from my mother. My father did not encourage me in that direction, but at least he did not forbid me from sharing feminist idea.

I had no problem claiming that I was a feminist until I was a teenager. When I was seventeen, it began to change slightly and I have the first memory of disapproval from the outside. I was shocked to realize that not only men were against feminism; women were too.

Still as a teenager, I realized that I could act to change things. We were a little group of girls feeling hurt by sexist billboards that invaded the city. From our point of view, the public space should be a protected space. If alcohol and cigarettes advertising could be forbidden, why should it be different with sexist billboards affecting women. I had no law background at this time, but when I think about it, I still don’t think that our response was absurd, even if incomplete.

We decided to take an appointment with the politician in charge of the sector including advertising in my city to discuss the problem with him. He accepted to meet us. After the first few words I said, he violently humiliated me and swept my friends away. He simply used the power that he had against teenagers. The meeting gave no results, except the feelings of being powerless. I and the other members of our little group were very disappointed. We did not find any support from the desk supposedly dedicated to equal chances set up by the university. At this moment, where we were full of energy and hope to change things, our wings were cut.

Later, I got involved in gender classes, where I never received practical answers. It was very theoretical, and the links with the real life were difficult to see.

Little by little, I was discouraged. I recognized that it was vain to keep going in the feminist direction. The different attempts I made to change things were unsuccessful and no value was given to my opinion. At some points, I decided to be more careful about disclosing the fact that I was feminist or not. The paroxysm was when I entered the law school. I understood that if I disclosed it, I would be punished in some way or another. I decided that feminism was never rewarding, and to move away from this world.

I did not talk about feminism for a few years, thinking that I had to burry this old dream because it will never bring anything positive in my life. However, it still remained present. I came back to it a few months before arriving in the US. I decided to take this feminist legal theory class, expecting some renewal. It worked, and seeing that more and more peers share my opinion helped me a lot. I began to proclaim myself again as a feminist.

When I disclose this fact, outside of the class, here are the reactions I receive:
After simply saying that I’m taking the feminist legal theory class, from a group of lawyers in Sacramento, including a woman, a big heavy silence followed.
From one of my male colleague, after the same statement: “- the what??”, and another heavy silence followed before a change of subject.
From my girl roommate, after stating that I’m a feminist (feeling sufficiently confident to clearly express it after 3 months): “-You are a feminist???” Silence. Mumbling. “That makes sense…” Change of subject.

That’s the result when I only say “feminist” or only an allusion to it. What happens to feminists that act publicly, by being active and publishing online? Michelle Goldberg explains in her article “Feminist writers are so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire”, death or rape threat are so frequent, that some decided to give up.

Just have a look at the hateful comments below this article; as stupid as they are, they have clearly an impact on someone’s life.

Far from the screen, things are different. When I disclosed the fact of being a feminist as I explained it above, except in some rare occasion, the disapproval will, most of the time, be much more subtle. The silence is loaded with some malaise and non-identifiable element. Those are not threats, but it means something. I can’t really state clearly what the consequences of the disclosure will be, but I know there will be some. I am certainly instantly categorized, judged and then some opportunities wont be available. It is definitely safer to stay hidden, especially in such a conservative area such as the law field.

What is paradoxical, is that I hear more and more men proclaiming themselves as feminist. They are not numerous, but there are some of them. It does not seem dangerous for them. I was always supportive of the presence of men in the feminist movement and the presence of men in the feminist legal theory class is very valuable to me. But those last days, I saw some disturbing things. Some men proclaiming women’s right, not really because they always believed in that, but because they found some professional opportunities in this area. Even in the feminist area, it is easier to be a man because they are not threatened.

Have you noticed that the members of this blog mostly designate themself using first names? On the contrary, male members do not have any problem disclosing full name. However it is a law school blog! Everybody should be very proud to put his/her entire name on it, to proclaim that they participate in it. The reason to that is that it is hard to be a feminist. There is invisible pressure to stand that push women to stay hidden. But how can I achieve anything hiding myself? I like to think that it will become easier, once I will reach a certain status and not be a student any more. But will it not be different kind of pressure then?

If I am honest with myself, I should admit that my heart never beat as much as when I’m thinking about feminism and women’s right. I have always been a feminist. I hope that in some future, I‘ll be able to really express it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of patriarchy's genesis (part II): a critique

Before I evaluate de Beauvoir’s work, I should say that, since my undergraduate studies, I have been drawn to the provocative appeal of French existentialism. However, that appeal is actually very superficial. Existentialism as a philosophy postures as something radical and new-fangled, but in reality it is simply another—certainly more poetic—articulation of prevailing modes of thought. At best, it is beautifully written prose, and nothing more—a sort of prose we do not really see in academia today because of the rise of tedious empiricism, positivism, and citation based research literature. For instance, there is something to be said about the way de Beauvoir describes sex as “a revolt of the instant against time, of the individual against the universal,” or in how she writes, “marriage finds its natural fulfillment in adultery.”

Style is no substitute for substance. De Beauvoir’s critique of Engels falls far short of cogency. First of all, her account of the historical materialist perspective of woman’s subjugation is incorrect. She writes that her Marxist contemporaries claim that modern gender inequality is the product of vestigial capitalist patriarchy. The claim of her contemporaries was not that woman’s subjugation remained, without any material foundation within capitalism, because of the backwards sentiments of a few privileged men. It was that the economic substructure, which conditions the ideological and political, necessitates and reproduces woman’s subjugation. Capitalism ineludibly maintains patriarchy, sexism, or gender inequality—whatever one desires to call it—because it is highly profitable and politically advantageous. On one hand, individual captains of industry, men and women included, profit from the spurious, socially constructed division of gender because, on account of its cultural pervasiveness, they can justifiably pay women laborers at a lower rate than men. This disparity in remuneration allows an increased accrual of profit revenue. On the other hand, spurious divisions between common women and men cripplingly alienate the two, and thus they are prevented from engaging in effective political action.

De Beauvoir’s alternative to what she considers Engels’ conceptual vacuum is not only implausible on its own terms and at a theoretical level, but also—and, more importantly—it suggests absurd consequences at the practical level. De Beauvoir attributes certain unsavory essential features to woman. She writes that woman is “more closely enslaved to the species,” is servile, and is complacent. To de Beauvoir, it is man’s natural inclination to view himself as an autonomous being in opposition to woman’s weakness that led to woman’s decline. De Beauvoir provides no explanation as to why woman lacks man’s intrinsic yearning for individuality; she merely asserts it as if it were self-evident. She paints a necessarily submissive portrait of woman. This coupled with the assertion that woman is more animal than man, as it were, is actually quite deprecating toward woman. Not only is it disparaging, but also de Beauvoir’s propositions cannot account for the fact that a substantial amount of women have attained a great deal of individuality and autonomy by having controlling positions in industry, finance, and politics. To argue that a woman like Margaret Thatcher or Condoleezza Rice does not possess a drive for autonomy and individuality is odd, to say the least.

Moreover, de Beauvoir claims that man’s need to personally incarnate the other requires that he enslave woman. This, at a practical level, implies a very bleak outlook for the future. If the advent of sophisticated tools opened up man’s domineering nature to the world, and that nature leads to the enslavement of woman, how is woman to break the centuries-long pattern of oppression? Are woman to somehow change man’s nature so that he can live peacefully with woman? The very meaning of nature is that it is immutable, thus woman would not be able to change man. The only alternative would be for woman to either turn the tables on man, or to decimate every man. But, from de Beauvoir’s perspective that is impossible because woman would not be capable of such a thing on account of her complacency and innate lack of self. Moreover, de Beauvoir admits that such an alternative is bizarre. In effect, de Beauvoir provides only nihilism for woman, which, of course, she answers with her own brand of existentialism, a thoroughly individualistic philosophy not aimed at social change.

On a theoretical level and on its own terms, de Beauvoir’s interpretation of history leaves much unanswered. Indeed, because she posits an ontological framework separate from what she calls the economic monism of historical materialism, she begs many new questions, which Engel’s theory did not, as he hesitated to speculate. De Beauvoir posits that the advent of tools unlocked man’s latent desire to be autonomous, but she does not elucidate why man possessed a hidden drive for autonomy. From where did that desire originate? Are we to believe that it simply exists? In a word, her assertion only functions as an empty conceptual placeholder, as it cannot clarify what accounts for man’s “nature of his being.”

Moreover, de Beauvoir’s theory uncannily resembles the polemical propaganda uttered everyday by the many exponents of inequality, both sophisticated and unlettered. Her concept, even within its historical context, is not original. It can be boiled down, without adulteration, to the platitudes regarding humanity’s wicked nature uttered by every drugstore political scientist and philosopher opposed to progressive change. This is not say that de Beauvoir was a reactionary, but, regardless of her intentions, her logic is retrogressive as it ultimately substitutes real emancipation, a sweeping social undertaking, with the illusory emancipation of atomization, existentialism.

In addition, de Beauvoir’s assertion that man possesses an innate drive to enslave an Other is problematic. Again, she conjures this concept out of thin air. From where does this despotism originate? She provides no answer. And, again, this sort of description of man and humanity is identical to the verbiage of thousands of political obscurantists, vulgar charlatans, and their ignorant victims. But, assuming for the sake of argument that man possesses an impulse to dominate, de Beauvoir’s conception does not answer why man chose to dominate woman in particular. Is it because woman is somehow physically weaker? That does not seem to answer much, for a party’s relative weakness does not imply that the stronger party will seek to dominate the weaker party. In actuality, de Beauvoir’s account of history does not clear up the haze that frustrates her; it simply makes things cloudier.

Finally, de Beauvoir writes that capitalism has equalized the labor capacity of man and woman, thus resolving the contradiction—strong versus weak—that led to the decline of woman. However, she argues that patriarchal customs have kept women from fully realizing this equality. As I wrote above, it is not antiquated customs that have kept woman back, but rather it is the system of production, capitalism, which maintains those backward customs, that shackles woman. As Marx wrote in the preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

Today, the world bears witness to a contradiction between an equalized work capacity between the sexes on account of technology and the vile framework of capitalist patriarchy. This contradiction in order to be resolved requires “an era of social revolution,” not a stunting, alienating cult of self founded on the baseless premise that “hell is other people.”

However, in conclusion, de Beauvoir makes a worthy point: any future venture into comprehensive transformation requires that we should not “be blind to [woman’s] particular situation.” As I see it, one of the tragedies of twentieth century projects of change was that they did not fully integrate women within the ranks of leadership. The list of male leaders is endless (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eugene V. Debs, Che Guevara, etc.), but the list of women is shamefully small. However, women must not be integrated because they offer some inherent, softer qualities that men do not possess, but rather because, in practice and through example, the contradiction between mental labor being of man and drudgery being of woman must be erased.

De Beauvoir’s place as feminist vanguard may be well established, but it appears that the premises upon which her particular philosophy rests are taken for granted. In the end, she is guilty of the same offense of which she claims Engels and Marx are culpable. I am certain she was well aware of this. So, why did she bother to propose this conceptual placeholder, which is far too reminiscent for comfort of reactionary modes of thought?

Same face: female cartoon characters have no distinct identity

Every female cartoon character has the same face. No really. Take a look for yourself at the faces of the recent female Disney-Pixar cartoon characters:


Okay, okay, so maybe cartoonists just draw faces the same way for both sexes? Wrong. Male faces have a lot of variation, from face size and shape, to facial feature size and shape.


Tumblr user Every Flavored Bean created these depictions to highlight the differences between male and female cartoon faces. We perpetuate beauty standards and rampant sexism even in children’s cartoon movies. When children see these images (particularly girls) they begin to build expectations regarding their own self-image.

What's worse, animators don't deny that they draw female faces the same way. The lead animator for the recent Disney movie, Frozen, tried to explain why faces on female cartoon characters lack any differences:
They have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.
Hmm. It may help the characters look different if they actually have different faces. But drawing different faces would mean deviating from "keep[ing] them pretty."

A few years ago, feminists were in uproar over a leaked revision of a Disney princess who was to be featured in an upcoming movie. A new version of Merida, the lead character in the movie Brave, lost 20 pounds (but her breast size increased), had a lower cut dress, added a ton of mascara, and suddenly had no flyaway pieces of hair. There was such an outcry, that eventually Disney decided to keep the original version of the heroine with a fuller figure, natural hair and less makeup.  As a side note, she also became the first female hero in any Pixar film.

Generally, Disney grosses billions of dollars every year from its franchise of Disney princesses, a false and generic ideal of beauty for young girls. While some may consider cartoons to be “fun and games,” are these the type of messages we want to be sending young girls? It seems that everywhere one looks, there are stereotypes about the way we should look, dress and act. And I know there are others who don't appreciate this constant bombardment with the fake ideal. Tumblr user Every Flavored Bean stated:
Boys in animated movies have faces that are square, round, skinny, fat, alien-looking, handsome, and ugly. The only face that girls get to have is some round snub-nosed baby face. That’s not right.
There have been some improvements in cartoons. Disney made its first movies with female characters who didn't have a primary motivation of romance in Frozen and Brave. If you think of all the classic Disney movies: Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Cinderella, (I could go on), the primary motivation for female characters is love! Rare examples of movies with strong female characters are hard to come by, but animators are slowing starting to produce them.

There is no reason why female cartoon characters should all have the same face. Just as there is no reason all female cartoon characters should be primarily motivated to find love. It’s amazing to think that in the year 2015, we are still dealing with these implicit expectations of what women should look like, and we are marketing these expectations to our children! Soon female cartoon characters will be allowed to have the individual identities and characteristics that male characters are already afforded. For different perspectives on Disney princesses and their effects on young girls, read this post and this post. Also please see this post for a discussion on the similar harmful effects of the Barbie doll.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Feminism deemed too "controversial" for school photo.

The decision of an Ohio middle school principal is garnering quite a bit of attention this week.  Ms. Young, Principal of Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Batavia, Ohio, recently had a student’s t-shirt digitally edited to remove a message and avoid controversy. 

Surely this t-shirt must have had some foul language, right?  Or made some vulgar innuendo?  Violated the school’s dress code?  What message could have been so controversial?  

Turns out, it is the word FEMINIST.
(Photo: WXIX)

Sophie Thomas, an eighth grader at Clermont Northeastern wore a black t-shirt with the word “Feminist” written on it for a recent picture day.  When questioned about the decision to alter the image, Principal Young reportedly stated that the “class photo was no place for a statement that she deemed controversial” and that she decided to alter the image because “some people might find it [Ms. Thomas’ t-shirt] offensive.” 

After discovering that her t-shift had been blacked out, Ms. Thomas took to Instagram to launch a protest:  
(Photo: idiotsophie/Instagram)

Apparently, after enough local scrutiny, Principal Young apologized to Ms. Thomas.  In one report, she even admitted that the shirt did not violate any school policies or dress codes.  And when asked what she hoped to accomplish, Ms. Thomas reportedly stated:
I want everyone to realize that we need feminism ... I want you to have someone come into the school and educate everyone about feminism. I want us to go to the news station together and show the people that we are working together to make this school and our community a better place for everyone. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Principal Young’s attempts to avoid controversy certainly failed.  In addition to several articles being published (see them here on BuzzFeed, Ravishly, Think Progress, and the Washington Times), feminists on social media are showing their support using the hashtags #ideservefreedomofexpression and #keepfeminisminschools. 
(Via Twitter here.)

One education reporter summarized the situation perfectly:  “Yes, we live in a society where the word ‘feminist’ is still, apparently, controversial. Sigh.”

Sigh, indeed. 

While the articles have not addressed it, this cases seems to trigger an interesting 1st Amendment argument.  Could Ms. Thomas and her mother claim that Clermont Northwestern violated her 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech when they censored her t-shirt in the class photo?  Obviously, would need more information to answer that question legally. 

But this case also raises important policy questions.  Do we want school administrators censoring students’ t-shirts at all?  Do we want school administrators censoring this message? 

Apparently, the school has stated it will hold larger discussions with students regarding feminism.  Here’s hoping the school can learn from this and provide a meaningful opportunity for its students to discuss feminism because clearly Ms. Thomas is right: we need feminism.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Letting toys be toys

Normally I boycott overly-commercialized holidays, but during the last winter holidays season I visited a retail location of a well-known chain of toy stores to buy gifts for my three-year old nephew and one-year old niece. I had no idea what I was going to buy, but I kept a mental checklist of the attributes I wanted the toys to have. First, they couldn’t promote violence. Second, they had to be educational as well as fun. And, most importantly, they had to be as gender-neutral as possible. I’m sure that sounds simple enough, but I ended up spending at least five hours combing every inch of that store over two trips. The entire store was divided into “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” sections, and the degree of sexism on display was shocking -- and more than a little disappointing.

I’m sure that my nephew will feel the pressure to “play like a boy” -- and my niece the pressure to “play like a girl” -- soon enough. But I desperately didn’t want to contribute to it. For my nephew’s gift, this meant I skipped over any toy that would (a) glorify violence/war, or (b) suggest that some professions were exclusive to men. I was particularly mindful of (b) because I thought that one day the toy might be passed down to my niece, and I wouldn’t want her to feel conflicted by playing with a set of firefighters, for example, if all the firefighters were male, or the box only had a picture of a group of boys on it. I also wanted my nephew to have figures of female characters because I didn’t want him to feel as if there was anything wrong with that, and I thought it may help him practice empathy.

My requirements eliminated around 99.9% of the products on the shelves for 3- to 5-year olds. I’m certain Fisher-Price, Disney, Lego, etc., have some of the best focus group testing operations in the industry, but surely 3-year old boys don’t innately want toys so fundamentally different from 3-year old girls, or vice versa. I could barely believe what I was seeing in 2014.

Ultimately, I decided to compromise by buying my nephew seven small Playmobil build-a-figure packets. Four of them were “boys’” figures, and could be assembled to create male characters. These were sold in blue packaging. The other three were “girls’” characters, and were in pink packaging. Obviously.

Everything aimed at girls was in pink. Everything. The toys as well as their packaging. The girls’ toys sections are simply walls of pink shelves. Of pink princesses, pink pretend make-up sets, pink pretend cooking sets, or pink fashion design sets. “Boys’” Legos are multicolored. “Girls’” Legos were various shade of pink. Originally, Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven was green, yellow and orange. It turned gender-specific pink in 1993. The message was pretty clear: Every color other than pink is okay for boys. No color other than pink is okay for girls. And most disturbing of all are the aisles of infant dolls -- presumably so that your female toddler could get a jumpstart at training for motherhood.

Thus, buying a gift for my niece proved a lot more challenging. After my first sweep of the store, I decided to check on Amazon if there were any books or toys aimed at girls that encouraged science experiments, or encouraged them to become something like an astronaut. There weren’t any. I then checked the store for any children’s book with a female protagonist that wasn’t about being a princess or having a tea party. There weren’t any. However, they were all pink.

At the end, I settled on buying my niece two books. One was a story about anthropomorphized planes, and the other about anthropomorphized crayons. That’s right -- I decided that I would rather her aspire to be like a crayon rather than like how any of the so-called girls’ toys would brainwash her to be.

Perhaps I took this a little too seriously, but these are the types of things I find important. I do recognize, however, that these sentiments are not shared by many. For example, the childrens toy company Fat Brain Toys originally refrained from gender-specifying their products, but started to do so after customers overwhelmed them with requests.

The long-term societal consequences of gender-specifying children's toys has yet to be researched in depth, but what is clear is that play does affect childhood development, and how children's products are marketed affect how others see a child's gender, as well as how a child sees his/her own gender. It seems to me that taking gender out of toys would positively affect play, and therefore childhood development. Research shows that toys typically identified as “feminine” were associated with promoting physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills; whereas, toys identified as “masculine” were associated with excitement, violence, and competitiveness. Although the violent aspect of boys’ toys may be controversial, studies have shown that moderately masculine toys better develop children's physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills. Moderately feminine toys typically encourage more passive learning.

As argued previously on this blog, greater gender equality in the children's toy market is long past due. There is no reliable evidence showing that there are innate differences in how male and female children want to play, and limiting how children play based on their gender can only serve to reinforce gender inequality as the next generation grows up. I’m not necessarily saying that the entire toy baby doll industry needs to go away, but if it plans on sticking around, it shouldn’t be financed in entirety by our society’s irrational compulsion to force young girls to playact as mothers/caretakers. And it shouldn’t only be a “girls’ toy.” A good way to start this process would be by organizing toys by function, rather than gender.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The real consequences of the “second shift.”

I few weeks ago, my mother called me and she was clearly upset.  After a few minutes of questioning, she revealed that she’d just gotten off the phone with my father.  With my graduation quickly approaching, she had started organizing a party to celebrate.  Apparently, she had described her progress to my father and he did not respond well.  When she told him she planned to have the party at the house, he insisted that she start over and think of something else because the house was too messy.  Fortunately, we were ultimately able to resolve the issue without my mother having to start from scratch. 

But this isn’t the first time my parents have had this fight and it likely won’t be the last.  My parents have always fought over the cleanliness of their home.  To be fair, the dishes never seem to get done, the groceries don’t get put away, the mail sits in piles on the counter, and there is always laundry to do.  

But what it really boils down to is an issue of expectations.  Like many women in this country, my mother is expected to do it all and do it well.  And as a result, my mother essentially works two full time jobs.  This phenomenon has been referred to as the “second shift.”  Even though today’s women spend more time in the paid economy, they are still expected to complete most of the domestic responsibilities and chores. 

By now, it is well-documented that working women do more housework and child care than working men. This is what we call the "second shift": Men and women both go off to work, but it's women who come home to a whole other job.
According to the most recent American Time Use Survey, women spend nearly twice as much time engaging in household activities. 
On an average day, women spent more than twice as much time preparing food and drink, almost three times as much time doing interior cleaning, and four times as much time doing laundry as did men. Men spent more than twice as much time doing activities related to lawn, garden and houseplants, and doing interior and exterior maintenance, repairs, and decoration as did women.

More information and charts about household activities can be found here.

And with these expectations, comes criticism and backlash when they are not met.  Like many women, my mother is still held responsible for nearly all of the domestic work despite working full time.  And, like many women, she is criticized when some of these things fall through the cracks.   

The fact of the matter is that, even with men starting to pick up some of the slack, women are still pulling more weight around the house.  And as a result, women are experiencing the extra stress, frustration, embarrassment, and hurt-feelings that come with this expectation/criticism cycle.

So what can we do to help these women?  What can we do to try to put an end to the second shift?

First and foremost, we need to continue to recognize the double burden placed on women.  We need to acknowledge that more is asked of women in our society and women are expected to “rise to the call.”  Admitting that most women cannot “have it all” – at least not without help – will help reduce the pressure so many women feel to be perfect. 

But to really help women out of this double bind, we also need to challenge the underlying causes – differences in socialization and cultural expectations – and rise above the misconceptions that women are naturally inclined to household tasks or innately care more about them.  We need to recognize that “housework isn’t a debt wives owe to their husbands, nor one that husbands owe to wives.” 

For my part, I will continue to support my mother as much as I can.  I will let her vent.  I will commiserate with her.  I will help her when things start to slip through the cracks.  And I will use my position as the smart-mouthed, liberal, feminist daughter to challenge the expectations that are placed on her – one awkward conversation with my father at a time.