Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Musings on the Room of My Own

When we first moved into this house, it was billed as a three bedroom. It is not. That was a lie.

It is, more accurately, a two bedroom with a "bonus room" or (perhaps most accurately of all) a two bedroom with a large storage space that happens to have a window.

We were only into the second year of our marriage when we bought the house. We were still a year away from becoming parents. Our previous living arrangements, which we'd been sharing for the past six years, had included at various times roommates, single bedroom apartments with kitchens too tiny to fit us both, and living rooms used for sleeping. The house seemed infinite.

"It can be an office," we said. He still had a year left of law school, and I was embarking on the very beginning of my PhD program. Writing, reading, books. These were our habits and our tools. A space dedicated to the craft seemed like a dream. We put a desk in it.

Then we put boxes in it. The basement of the century-old house proved inadequate for the safekeeping of anything that might mold or dampen. Off-season clothes, crates of old syllabi, these took over the tiny space that we'd envisioned would be our "office." They grew, as boxes do, until the room became not just a glorified closet, but one we could envision as nothing else.

Then came the baby. Clothes that were too big, clothes that were too small, toys that were too loud, board books that could be cycled in and out of rotation. These joined the boxes. The room became so packed that we could only just open the door and precariously perch something new atop the stack.

Sure, we cleaned it. There were annual purges and piles of donations, but somehow the room inhaled deeply and sucked most of the stuff back to where it had been. You could no longer even see the desk.

We wrote at the kitchen table. We set a card table in front of the couch in the middle of the night. We transformed communal spaces into private ones for brief intervals. He graduated. I graduated. We got by.

"We'll move," we said. We'll get a place with a real office. We'll have bookshelves lining the walls and a desk for each of us. It will be beautiful.

Soon there will be another baby.

The room called to us again, but this time with more urgency. We unpacked it all. We Marie-Kondo'ed the books and took down the sagging bookshelves with their busted walls. We dismantled the desk. We consolidated the boxes and crammed them into corners elsewhere.

We filled the room with toys. With games. With a space where my older daughter can escape the tyranny of a newborn.

And now there is a trampoline in my living room. There is a plastic playhouse in my dining room that takes up as much room as the table. There is a bin of toys in the front hallway. There are stuffed animals in my bed and plastic boats in my bathtub.

The only room that has avoided an invasion, the only space in my entire house I can enter as my own, is the kitchen.

And it strikes me as quite funny.

After all, the kitchen is the symbol of oppression. It's where the women stand, barefoot and pregnant (as I was earlier this evening), trapped in their domesticity, chained to the demands of gender roles.

And I don't even like baking. It does not calm me or please me. And while cooking can be gratifying, most days it is another chore, another to-do to cross off a list a mile long. And no writing gets done between those walls, and it is not, it is most definitely not, the room of my own that I thought I would have by now, by 30, by career, by doctorate, by now.

But it is mine. And there is something calming about saying "no toys in the kitchen" and meaning it. There is something peaceful about stacking the dishes in the cabinets and being able to close them. About clearing off the counter and seeing it shine. About putting on a podcast and sweeping the floor. About existing in a space for a moment that feels centered, roughly organized, gently guarded.

I can hear my 22-year-old self scoffing. I can see her roll her eyes and call me a sell out, but she doesn't understand the compromises that led to claiming this space or just how many things can go a little off the list of plans or just how fast those little changes add up to a different set of rules entirely.

And maybe in eight more years, my 30-year-old self will be the one who couldn't see what it would all be like. Maybe I will sit down in my private, well-stocked, brightly-lit upstairs office and laugh about the time I thought lighting a candle while listening to neo-soul as I did the dishes was the pinnacle of claiming my space. But maybe not. And I think it will be okay.

Photo: Alan Cleaver

Friday, January 15, 2016

What Does it Mean to Say a Film is "Feminist"?

I just read an article from Bust titled "A Feminist Defense of Quentin Tarantino" by Courtney Bissonette that makes the bold claim that Tarantino has overt feminist motifs in most of his films. While I take some issue with some of the individual observations in the article (most notably that the author's discussion of rape in Tarantino's films omits the Pulp Fiction plot line that revolves around rape), I'm more interested in the way the article made me wonder what it is, exactly, that makes a film "feminist."

Bissonette's criteria is never stated directly, but her evidence seems all over the map to me, and I'm going to try to break it down here and discuss some of the nuances of it.

1) The Inclusion of Women Behind the Scenes
This is a minor point in Bissonette's article, but it comes early. She notes that "a woman named Sally Menke edited every one of his films until her untimely death in 2010." She uses Menke's editing as evidence that Tarantino's groundbreaking and award-winning work has been aided by the work of women in roles that are typically male dominated, especially for action movies.

This seems to be a valid claim to me, especially when we consider that women are grossly underrepresented in industry roles like production and editing. For another interesting take on women editing narrative action films (a space where they are even more underrepresented), consider the conversation surrounding George Miller's decision to ask his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Mad Max: Fury Road. While Miller insists that he wanted a woman's touch to avoid the film looking "like every other action movie," Sixel brings up her hesitation at taking on the project because of the domestic demands of having her husband on a busy filming schedule while she was simultaneously working on such a time-consuming project. While it's only a tiny microcosm, I can't help but notice that the man's comments are about the work while the woman's comments are about the impact on the home and family, a set of pressures that face women in practically every career field.

Anyway, this criteria seems like a valid one, and while some feminists might bristle at the idea that it takes an established male voice like George Miller's or Quentin Tarantino's to grant women access to the industry (as if it's some kind of gift bestowed by the powerful), I think that the realities of power dynamics have demonstrated time and again that part of disrupting unfair systems involves allies on the other side of the equation.

Directorial jobs for everyone! 

2) Men Speak Highly of Women
For me, this was the most dubious of Bissonette's claims. She cites the scene from Reservoir Dogs in which the all-male cast discusses Madonna's sexual confidence in a positive light. Elsewhere, she cites Samuel L. Jackson's character from Pulp Fiction calling a vagina the "holiest of holies" and that he notes that his girlfriend is a vegetarian, which makes him a vegetarian.

Bissonette implies that these lines suggest some kind of respect for women that is inherently feminist, but I just don't see it. Men putting women on a pedestal for having vaginas is deeply patriarchal, in my opinion, and I don't think it's anything new, edgy, or otherwise disruptive to traditional gender narratives.

And I took the comment about forced vegetarianism to be a knock on his girlfriend's nagging and controlling nature, a popular running gag about women across different media channels.

Having male characters show appreciation of or affection for female characters is not necessarily feminist, though I don't think it's necessarily unfeminist. It just is. Merely acknowledging that women exist and that there are social interactions with them doesn't cut it as "feminist" for me.

3) Men Recognize Women's Oppression
Bissonette doesn't really separate this point out from the previous one, but she also cites places where male characters recognize the oppression of women as evidence of Tarantino's feminist efforts. For example, she notes that the Reservoir Dogs characters comment on women being unable to get high-paying jobs and that the Pulp Fiction characters make a comment about Mia Wallace not having anything as horrible as rape happen to her.

I can see a much more convincing argument that having a male character recognize the brutal impact of rape or the inequality of the work force is a feminist theme. In fact, reading this made me think about a film I have a hard time figuring out my feelings about: Black Snake Moan. In this film, Samuel L. Jackson plays a recently divorced man who is at a low point in his life when he finds a scantily clad, assaulted, and unconscious young woman played by Christina Ricci. He brings her home, ties her (still in her underwear) to his radiator, and spends the rest of the film curing her of her promiscuity and anxiety (which we find out stem from years of sexual assault as a child). On the face of it, there is pretty much nothing feminist about that film, and there is plenty to criticize as stereotypical, demeaning to women, and problematic. But I think that its redeeming quality comes in the way that Jackson's character grows alongside Ricci's. While her oppression, abuse, and mistreatment (even at her own hands) is obvious, his is buried, and those realities fall along gender lines. She wears her abuse externally because it's expected of a woman to be victimized. He has to hide his emotional wounds (even from himself) because he is supposed to be hardened by masculinity. Their shared experiences move both of them forward and toward one another in a way that complicates the simple criticism of the film as sexist, and I think it's within this category that I would make that argument.

Overall, using narrative film to show male recognition of female oppression seems to fit feminist goals for me.

4) Female Characters Own Their Sexuality and their Strength
Bissonette's point about female characters who own their sexuality and display empowerment through physical strength and (often) sheer brutality is probably the most popular argument for what makes a Tarantino film feminist. Consider this list from Vogue or this very similar one from The Telegraph.

Tarantino has some literally kick-ass female characters. These are tough women who can kill, kick, and maim with the best of their brutal male counterparts, and it's often refreshing to see female characters who can carry on meaningful dialogue that isn't about anything stereotypically "girly." The fact that some of these characters are simultaneously seductively clothed and scantily clad paints a complex portrayal of sexuality and empowerment in a way that I, and the third-wave feminist movement, am happy to see. Being sexy does not mean being limited to sex as a narrative tool.

Final Thoughts

So what is it that makes a film "feminist"?

The flip side of all of this is how a feminist awareness can really make watching movies and enjoying it a difficult task. What seems to make a film unfeminist is when female characters are used as sexual props, given one-dimensional roles that only exist to further the plot lines of male characters, and are otherwise erased or marginalized.

When I've talked to people about films they consider feminist, there are some titles that come up again and again. Fried Green Tomatoes. Boys Don't Cry. Thelma and Louise. North Country. 9 to 5. Often, these films seem to take on sexist oppression directly, making it a major theme of the film, and I think that's an obvious and fair way to judge a film as feminist.

But that's a pretty limited band of criteria that I think has to be broadened. Surely a film can promote feminist ideals or even just sprinkle in some feminist themes without such an overt axe to grind. In fact, while I love and personally enjoy many films that have those strong, obvious messages of female empowerment, I'd make an argument that subtle shifts to the portrayal of women on the screen and inclusion of women in directorial, production, and editing roles is probably doing more to reach a broad audience and slowly move the needle of equality forward for the largest segment of the population.

I'm less concerned with whether or not Tarantino's films in particular are "feminist" (though the feminist and Tarantino fan in me thinks that at least some of them probably are). I'm more interested in how what criteria we're using to judge whether a film (and television, music, really any entertainment media) is feminist.

If we draw those lines too narrowly, I think we're cutting out a lot of influential, powerful material and frustrating well-meaning feminists and feminist allies just because they don't meet a bar of perfectionism that isn't realistic.

But if we draw those lines too broadly, the term "feminism" loses meaning entirely, and we get to the point where we can call anything feminist without actually considering its ideological impact.

Perhaps the real answer is that there are as many ways to enact feminist principles in media as there are ways to live out feminism in our individual lives, and just like real people living real lives, films are going to have degrees of feminist alliance that brighten and fade. As consciously feminist film viewers, I think our best bet is to identify and celebrate the moments when we can, criticize the harmful elements that continue to oppress and degrade, and cut some slack to the moments in the middle. Not every moment, line, character, or scene has to be feminist for the film to make a difference, and we should keep our eye on the prize: a social shift that steadily (if sometimes painfully slowly) moves us toward equality.

Images: erika g.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

This Time Around

A little over five years ago, I was pregnant for the first time. As my daughter grew inside me, I thought about that pregnancy what felt like every moment of every day. Sure, I was working and living and doing all of the things that life requires, but the pregnancy was always there, at most one layer beneath the surface of my mind, prodding at me with every move I made.

My mind: "Oh, you just wanted to enjoy some scrambled eggs? You know what else was an egg? Your baby.
Let's think about that for a while. What? You're not hungry anymore?
That's probably for the best, as you're going to be too nauseous to open your eyes in about ten minutes anyway."
I remember being in bed at night unable to sleep, but it wasn't because I was consumed with worry (at least not most of the time). Though there were dashes of fear or anxiety, most of the time it was just the work of thinking through the sheer newness of it all. What would it be like to give birth? What would it be like to hold a baby for the first time? I'd never held a baby that new to the world. What would it be like to come home with her? Did we have everything? Where would the changing table be most strategically placed? What would the dog think of her? If I had to have a c-section, how would I climb all those steps in my house? What would her eyes look like? Would she have a lot of hair? When would she be old enough to take to the City Museum? What would my husband be like as a father? How often would she see her cousins? Where would I pump at work?

The questions ranged from the big and philosophical to the daily and mundane, but one thing was consistent: the questions came in a constant internal monologue. I had to push them to the back of my mind to get through the daily tasks of work, school, and socializing. It was like someone had a radio playing inside my head.

This time around, however, I've managed to forget that I'm even pregnant for days at a time. I am about halfway through this pregnancy, and I've found myself suddenly nauseated and confused. Did I eat something bad? Am I getting the flu? No, fool. You're pregnant. Remember?

This wasn't true at the beginning of the pregnancy. Since I'd had a miscarriage just six weeks before getting pregnant, early pregnancy was a time full of questions, but none of them were peaceful or philosophical. They were all practical and full of fear. What were the odds of miscarrying once I'd made it to six weeks? Six weeks and three days? Was that a cramp? It was made even worse by the fact that this pregnancy, like my first one, was accompanied by a hematoma that caused some bleeding. Every day I wavered between delight over having another baby to sheer terror over suffering another loss. Those first few weeks were full of attention, but it was pained, terror-filled attention void of any joy.

At first, I thought my nonchalance was a kind of defense mechanism. Maybe I had fallen into not thinking about the pregnancy as much because it was easier than being terrified. But now I don't think so. Several doctor's visits have confirmed that all is well. The statistics are well on my side. I'm not terrified any more.

So the difference is me.

I'm five years older, for one thing. My life is much more stable in a lot of ways than it was during that first pregnancy. I'm not wondering what my career will look like. I'm not newly moved into a house that's falling apart. My PhD is finished. I'm eight years into my marriage instead of three. Perhaps all of those realities have turned down the volume on that radio show in my head.

But it's also just that parenting isn't new. And that doesn't mean that I think I've gotten it all figured out and that it will be easy this time around. Not at all.

If parenting my "spirited" daughter has taught me anything, it's that I can't prepare for parenting another human being no matter how hard I try. Not really. It also taught me that it doesn't really matter where the changing table goes (I'll use the bed or the couch more often anyway) or where I pump at work (I've pumped in rooms dedicated to that purpose, in my car, in a bathroom, sitting in a corner of an airport). I still have no idea what this baby's eyes or hair will look like, and we've decided to not even find out if it's a girl or a boy, so there are even more questions I could be asking myself. But I'm not asking them because this time around, I know that I can't be prepared.

I saw this video the other day of a mother duck trying to march with her ducklings in a row when the high wind blows her babies all over the place and she scrambles to get them back together. She ends up heading in a completely different direction.

And that, I think, is the perfect metaphor for what these early years of parenting have felt like for me. That first pregnancy, I spent all that time plotting how to keep those ducklings in a row. I spent all that time thinking about what the perfect tempo would be for our march. I spent all that time imagining the direction we would head and the path we would take. But I didn't account for the wind. 

This time around, you could say that I've taken a fatalist attitude toward the wind. Come what may, I can't stop it anyway. But I think a more optimistic take is that I know now what I didn't know then. There is some direction you can go, and we'll get there in time.

Photo: Hamburger Helper

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Free Speech Confusion: Of Coddled College Students and Profane Professors

The future of free speech is making headlines as we try to parse out what this "new generation" of coddled college students who just can't stand to be offended means for our cultural value of being able to say whatever the hell you want to whoever the hell you want without consequence.

Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released poll data showing that 40% of Millennials think that the government should be able to prevent offensive speech against minorities (as opposed to 27% of Gen Xers, 24% of Boomers, and just a measly 12% of those epithet-loving Silents).

Since then, I have seen a whole lot of people (in social media, news outlets, and in real life) wringing their hands about what this means for the future of America. Are today's kids going to hand over the land of the free to authoritarian dictatorships because we're afraid of getting our feelings hurt? (Though, I'm a Millennial, and I'm 30, so pretty soon we're going to have to stop with the "kids today" narrative when it comes to Millennials, right? Don't we ever get to grow up?!)

Since then, there's been some walking back of the initial fears. Even people who were initially part of the hype are revisiting the context of their fears. For example, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine originally reported the Pew results as being extremely high, but later wrote a follow-up piece where he examines the wording of the poll and compares it to historical data to demonstrate things really aren't that different

J.F. Sargent, writing for Cracked, initially lamented the generation of people who are just looking for a reason to be offended, but just this week wrote a very interesting post about what we're missing when it comes to college students and free speech. His conclusion, much like Singal's is that the college student crisis is not nearly as dire as we're making it out to be. And he also points to several very serious free speech issues that we're conveniently ignoring (or at least not turning into memes and collectively shaking our heads about as we mourn the death of freedom). A prime example is at Mizzou (the very campus that has been held up as free speech hating activists run amok even though the professor who blocked the journalists was removed from her position and apologized for her actions). While we had a collective freakout over that story, another Mizzou-related free speech violation flew largely under the radar. A Missouri state senator has been trying to intimidate and force a Mizzou grad student from completing her dissertation on abortion and the impact of Missouri's 72-hour waiting period. As Sargent writes: 
This happened at literally the exact same school as the protests, and it's a way more cut-and-dry threat to free speech. The government is literally telling a grad student what they're allowed to study, which is precisely what the first amendment is meant to prevent.
Still, it does seem true that my generation is more sensitive to offensive speech, and that's largely thanks to the way that information is disseminated today. We have global platforms and the ability to share both our offensive thoughts and our offended reactions in a matter of seconds. The impact of hateful speech cannot be ignored as easily as the buffers of privilege have been partially pierced by social media. It's a lot harder to think that your blackface Halloween costume is "just a joke" when you see social media campaigns and the reactions of actual minorities telling you that's not the case. It's much harder to think that catcalling a woman on the street is just harmless fun when women are taking to social media en masse to share their fear and disgust.

And people who bemoan my generation's threat to free speech because of our sensitivity to the pervasive nature of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparities would be wise to remember that these campaigns are free speech, too. Publicly shaming someone for their Halloween costume is not a violation of the costume wearers rights; it's a practice of the rights of those who witness it.

When I shared the link to the Pew poll, someone asked me if I was sharing it because I thought it was a good thing. The answer is no. I shared it because I thought it was interesting, and now after doing more research into the actual context of the polling, I think that the reaction is even more interesting than the data.

But I think what the question was getting at was whether or not I myself thought that offensive speech should be legally regulated. The answer to that is also no. I'm among the 60% of Millennials who think that speech (even when offensive) should remain free of government restriction.

I did pause for a while and try to think through the implications of my answer. And my response has to start with the recognition that I am white. I don't experience the horrors of much of this hate speech the way that, say, Mizzou's student body president did. There isn't a racial slur that I have to fear being lobbed at me when I'm trying to walk around my own community. I recognize that and admit that this buffer of racial privilege keeps me from speaking from a place of complete understanding when it comes to the legality of hate speech.

I do, though, have plenty of firsthand experience with street harassment. I've also been the victim of plenty of horrendous internet harassment, including death and rape threats (a common occurrence for women who dare to be active in online spaces). It is really unpleasant to be running down a street and hearing someone you don't even know shout out sexually suggestive things and then call you a "bitch" or "whore" when you don't respond the way they want. It's scary. It has ruined my day, made me afraid to run outside, and made me angry at myself for not knowing how to respond or for being too afraid of what those men might do to me to actually stand up for myself.

I can admit that in those moments, I've wished for a law that bans their words. But when I stop to think about how that law would be enacted, I still side with free speech.

What would we ban? The words? I don't ever believe in banning words. If some man isn't allowed to yell "bitch" at me when I'm running down the street, does that mean a woman could be arrested for referring playfully to her best friend as a "bitch"?

In the FCC v. Pacifica ruling (a major case for free speech in which the FCC was granted very broad oversight into protecting the public from "indecent" speech on the airwaves), George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" skit was upheld as unfit for public airwaves.

Justice Brennan dissented in this case, and within his dissent, he says this (I know, I know. My quote is long. I tried to make it shorter, but it's just so good): 
It is quite evident that I find the Court's attempt to unstitch the warp and woof of First Amendment law in an effort to reshape its fabric to cover the patently wrong result the Court reaches in this case dangerous as well as lamentable. Yet there runs throughout the opinions of my Brothers POWELL and STEVENS another vein I find equally disturbing: a depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities. It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the Court to approve the censorship of communications solely because of the words they contain. 
"A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used." Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918) (Holmes, J.). The words that the Court and the Commission find so unpalatable may be the stuff of everyday conversations in some, if not many, of the innumerable subcultures that compose this Nation. Academic research indicates that this is indeed the case. See B. Jackson, "Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me" (1974); J. Dillard, Black English (1972); W. Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (1972). As one researcher concluded, "[w]ords generally considered obscene like `bullshit' and `fuck' are considered neither obscene nor derogatory in the [black] vernacular except in particular contextual situations and when used with certain intonations." C. Bins, "Toward an Ethnography of Contemporary African American Oral Poetry," Language and Linguistics Working Papers No. 5, p. 82 (Georgetown Univ. Press 1972). Cf. Keefe v. Geanakos, 418 F.2d 359, 361 (CA1 1969) (finding the use of the word "motherfucker" commonplace among young radicals and protesters). 
Today's decision will thus have its greatest impact on broadcasters desiring to reach, and listening audiences composed of, persons who do not share the Court's view as to which words or expressions are acceptable and who, for a variety of reasons, including a conscious desire to flout majoritarian conventions, express themselves using words that may be regarded as offensive by those from different socio-economic backgrounds.[fn8] In this context, the Court's decision may be seen for what, in the broader perspective, it really is: another of the dominant culture's inevitable efforts to force those groups who do not share its mores to conform to its way of thinking, acting, and speaking. See Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 506-511 (1977) (BRENNAN, J., concurring).
I agree with Brennan. If we start trying to ban individual words, we're essentially demanding that all subcultures and minority groups acquiesce to one dominant definition of those words, and that's unacceptable. Words that are offensive in one context can be empowering in another. I'm thinking here of having chanted "cunt" at a showing of the Vagina Monologues. That's a word that I certainly don't want screamed at me on the street, but in that moment, surrounded by allies against gender oppression, it was a word full of power.

So instead of trying to ban the speech, many anti-catcalling activists have taken to free speech tools of their own. They're releasing videos documenting the violations of their safety and peace as they walk down the street. They've started hanging "No Catcalling" signs on city streets. And these tactics have started many serious conversations that are demanding changes to the culture.

The problem is being addressed with more speech, not less. The true power of free speech is that it can be claimed and filled with power by the most marginalized. Free speech is the tool that allows us to stand up to the dominant narratives and make our voices heard.

I don't think today's college students are going to give that up. I believe, instead, that they're trying to untangle the particularly tricky work of navigating speech rights in an unprecedented time of public accountability. And I believe, perhaps naively but fully, that the American tradition of free speech will prevail--perhaps more powerfully than those who've benefited from oppression would like.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

Here are the things that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious) this week. What have you been reading (or writing)?

The Good

The Bustle has a list of feminist songs.

I'm really enjoying Master of None, and I enjoyed this reflection from Kelvin Yu on how this show finally allowed him to play someone he recognized in himself:
So for years I played nerds, and then for a long time I played jilted Asian men who were angry because they'd been dishonored. I would like murder my sister or my wife on CSI: New York or Without a Trace or NCIS. I just would kill my wife because I was so mad because I'd been dishonored. The problem with that is there's some well-intended writer whose probably not Asian-American back there doing his or her best to write an episode of their show that involves Asians, but they don't have any primary or even secondary interactions with Asians to go off of. So they end up falling into a little bit of low-hanging fruit and they don't realize how many times I've had to kill my wife and my sister because she was like, dating a white guy and I couldn't take it. And then you walk around New York and there's guys like Alan and girls like Lena walking around, so this is the first time it was like, "Hey dude, just be you. We're going to put you in great boots. You're going to walk down Elizabeth [Street] and say some funny things."
I love this list of female-centric revisions of "Hotline Bling" (side note: he clearly means "blink," right?! It drives me crazy that it is "bling.") My favorite is Ceresia's:

The everyday and beautiful reality of breastfeeding, captured in this photo project.

Roller derby continues to serve as a welcoming space for transgendered athletes.

The Bad

Locally, the temperature dropped suddenly and deeply. This morning, three children died in a house fire started by a space heater, and it breaks my heart. 

Did faulty response by WHO make the Ebola outbreak worse

Donald Trump.

The Curious 

Do the socialist-leaning youth suggest a trending change in the landscape of American politics?

I want to grow fruit trees in my house, but I'm kind of bad at growing things. I'll let this idea marinate for a bit.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christmas Birthday Shopping Extravaganza!

My daughter's birthday is December 1, so Christmas and birthday shopping all blur together into one big whirlwind. And since I really don't like shopping (especially in a physical store), that can have some drawbacks.

She's turning five this year, and I think this is the first year where I've felt like I was buying her things genuinely attuned to her personality rather than just generally applicable to pretty much any kid (I mean, who doesn't like blocks?)

I can remember being a kid surrounded by buckets and buckets of plastic toys. We had popcorn tins full of Polly Pocket, The Littlest Pet Shop, Barbies, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My mom was especially fond of finding an entire bag full of these goodies at yard sales. Our cups runneth over.

But why did we have so many popcorn tins?! Mom, if you're reading this, I need to know. 
Maybe at this young age our kiddo's "likes" are really just an extension of their parents' shopping habits, and my shelves full of tiny toys reflected my mother's obsession with a good bargain. If that's the case, I suppose I could be hoisting my own dislike of shopping onto my daughter's preferences, but it truly seems that she's not all that into most toys.

For a while, I was naive enough to think that this meant that (since my house wouldn't be full of minuscule toy pieces that had to constantly be sought, reorganized, catalogued, and remembered) I would escape some of the mess of parenthood. Alas, my daughter's primary interest appears to be art. If she had her way, she would spend every waking minute with either a crayon or a paint brush in her hand. Her other favorite thing to do is play in a box of sand or water beads. So instead of being covered in Polly Pocket pieces and Barbie shoes, my house is filled with dehydrating water beads and paint smears. All of life's a trade off.

Anyway, I digress. I'm excited about the gifts she'll be getting for her birthday and Christmas this year, and I think they'll bring ongoing joy and exploration to her little artistic, inquisitive self.

I got her the Osmo game system for the iPad, and I maybe had to open it up and give it a try just to, you know, "make sure" it was a good fit. I'm so excited to see her play with this. It really is as amazing as it looks in the ads.

I also finally ordered a subscription to Kiwi Crate, which I've been eyeing since she was 2 but finally feel she's old enough to use and appreciate. 

(Side note: if you are planning to order a Kiwi Crate subscription for Christmas, too, you can use this link and we'll each get $10 in store credit). 

I am particularly excited that the Kiwi Crate subscription is an ongoing gift. Especially since her birthday and Christmas are in the same month, it seems like she gets all the new things in one swoop and the newness rubs off quickly. With a monthly package of artsy goodness, she'll have intermittent bursts of surprise. 

Those are the gifts I'm most excited about watching her get excited about. What are your favorite gifts to give this year? 

Photo: Nina Helmer

Friday, November 20, 2015

Recycled: Who Profits From The Mom Wars

The following post originally appeared on this blog on April 18, 2012. I wrote it when my daughter was two years old after spending an evening conversing with two other women I'd just met, both of whom had two-year-olds of their own. Between the three of us, we'd managed to represent all three primary methods of managing childcare in a two-parent household: stay-at-home mom, stay-at-home dad, and two working parents who rely on childcare (that last one was me and my husband). I had spent some time reflecting on how pitting women against one other in the "Mommy Wars" was a profitable way for companies because certain products get associated with certain lifestyle choices.

This has become even more obvious in the subsequent three years, something that I'm recognizing now that I'm pregnant again. Facebook now has targeted ads that use things like geographic information and your shared posts to attempt to match users directly to the products that speak to their particular identity.

This means that I (with my friend feed full of wonderful baby wearing, cloth diapering, crunchy mamas) get a lot of ads for the markers of a particular kind of mommy lifestyle that include cloth diapers, baby carriers, and boho chic diaper bags.

You can see how those products become identity markers through the hyperbolic presentation in this Similac ad:

The slings, the strollers, the bags, the bottles: all of them are used to denote a particular kind of philosophy, a particular kind of parenting identity. And yes, the point of this video is that in a moment of crisis all of those corporate-driven markers fall away and we are, at the core, just parents trying to do our best to love and raise our children well. 

But there are a lot of moments where we're not in crisis. And there are a lot of pressures coming at us from all sides (including those ubiquitous Facebook ads) that teach us that parenting is something you armor yourself for, and the only way to do it properly is through the proper gadgets. 


I just read Mary Elizabeth Williams' Salon piece calling to end the mom wars. Since she works part-time from home, she calls herself a "spy in two houses," able to sit in with groups of stay-at-home moms as they ripped apart their working counterparts for not really loving their children and with groups of working moms who tore apart their stay-at-home counterparts for not having real lives.

With the political hijacking of the mommy wars, these problems are fresh on my mind. I know that Williams is absolutely right. Women are often terrible to one another, and motherhood seems to be a battleground filled with the horrendous potential to judge and dismember. I also agree that this kind of bickering "stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities." The easiest way to prove to ourselves that we're doing it right is often to make sure everyone knows those other women are doing it wrong.

From tamdotcom
But I know it doesn't have to be this way. I truly believe that we are capable of better. At the conference I attended last week I had the opportunity to have dinner with two other mothers who were presenting (if either of you are reading this, hi!). We all had babies born within a month of one another, so we had a lot in common. But we also had some pretty different approaches to how we handled this juggling act of parenting and the rest of life. One of the women had brought her baby to the conference with her. She also stays at home. The other woman works full-time and has a husband who stays home to care for their two children. My husband and I, on the other hand, both work full-time and use daycare for our daughter.

So, there we were. Enemies. Or so the media would have us believe. Unable to find even a sliver of common ground.

But that wasn't the case at all. We had plenty to talk about, plenty to share, and plenty to learn from one another. Parenting, as it turns out, isn't particularly easy no matter how you do it, but it's also full of joy and rewards. Those are the things we should focus on: helping each other out through the difficulties and celebrating each other's happiness. You can't tell me that's not enough to break down essentialist barriers.

During this conversation, we also began to talk about who really benefits from tearing mothers apart. I posited that this kind of divisive rhetoric is a tool that keeps women from attaining equality in all spheres. We could target things like pay gaps, leave policies, health care (like why we have nearly double the infant mortality rate of countries like Sweden and Iceland), and inadequate or stereotypical media representations. If we're busy tearing each other apart over every parenting decision, we're not very likely to come together and recognize these more pervasive influences.

But something that I hadn't put a lot of thought in came up in that conversation as well. One of the women mentioned how much businesses profit from the niche markets created by in-group fighting in mothers. After all, if you're going to belong to a particular club, you have to have a way to show it. Everything from the stroller you push (or the carrier you use so you don't have to push the stroller) to the baby food you buy (or the baby food maker you buy so that you don't have to buy baby food) to the bath products you use to the toys our children play with have been marketed as making a statement about who you are and what you believe.

I'm not saying that none of these statements have a real-world basis. I'm not saying that there's no difference between Johnson and Johnson's baby shampoo and Angel Baby's or between carrying your baby in a sling and using a stroller. I'm also not saying that you shouldn't care about those differences. I'm just saying that what appears to be an informed decision based on ethics and ideals is also a way for companies to make money.

Just as in high school wearing Vans meant something different than wearing Nikes, buying Fisher Price means something different than buying Oompa. And all of those companies have a bottom line to worry about. The mommy wars create lovely little niche markets where advertising can be targeted.

And, as this infograph from Frugal Dads points out, that makes for a very bolstered industry. Note that statistic at the bottom: "37% of new mothers surveyed express guilt over not being able to afford a certain baby product." Is that because we're letting these products mean more to us than they should?

Babies Infographic
Source: frugaldad.com