Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Single Mothers, Tip o' the Hat to You

My husband occasionally has to go out of town for work. When he does, it changes my perspective on parenting--by a lot.

We have worked out a choreographed dance of chaos each morning. Our daughter wakes up sometime between 6 and 7. If it's closer to 6, I get her, bring her back to bed with me, nurse her, and then sleepily nudge my husband when I'm done. He takes her and gets her dressed for the day. If it's closer to 7, he gets her dressed first and then brings her to me to nurse. Then she sits in her bouncy chair being alternately entertained by each of us as we whiz by one another in a whirl of toothbrushes, clothes, computers, phones, hairbrushes, letting out the dog, feeding the cats, putting the dog up, making lunches, and bags--so many bags. My husband gets her bottles ready while I pump before heading out the door in two trips to pack all of the stuff in the car. Then we both take off for work, him with a 45-minute commute, me with a stop at the daycare for drop off.

It's not that the evenings are always easy, but the hecticness of trying to get out of the door on time makes the mornings panic-inducing. If we miss a step--say, turn off an alarm and sleep an extra fifteen minutes or forget to put the dog up and only notice him prancing at the top of the steps at the last minute--we're both almost guaranteed to be late.

So when I have to do it alone, I feel completely dumbfounded. I find myself doing things in the least efficient way possible: getting up, nursing the baby, walking down the stairs and turning the monitor on, putting bread in the toaster, going back up the stairs to calm her when she starts crying, carrying her downstairs and setting her in her chair, starting to pump, having to stop when she starts fussing, realizing my toast is now cold, carrying her back up the stairs while I brush my teeth, taking her back down the stairs to finish pumping, carrying her back up the stairs to get myself dressed, carrying her back down the stairs to finally eat cold toast--you get the idea. I'm sure if I did it often, I'd figure out a better way, but since it's sporadic, I always flail about.

Anyway, all of that to say that I have a true appreciation for the women who do it on their own every morning. My own mother was a single mom from the time I was 12, and since my little brother is 10 years my junior, for almost his entire life. She also went back into the workforce after spending over a decade as a stay-at-home mom. She and the thousands of women like her deserve some applause.

Later this year, when my daughter has started solids and breastfeeding is a little less daunting (fingers crossed), I'm going to be going out of town for a conference or two. Maybe my husband will be able to give me some tips on how to do the morning tango alone. Or maybe he'll call in sick; I know I've been tempted.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Response to Professor X

Lorraine Berry wrote an eloquent response to Professor X's assertion that the feminization of college campuses had led to grade inflation. She concludes with a very student-centered teaching philosophy:

The generalization that I am willing to make, after 11 years before students and among colleagues, is that grade inflation is indeed the result of changing one's relationship to one's students. I don't stand in front of my classroom as the all-knowing prof. I offer to them a system, built upon the idea that once upon a time, I didn't know how to do these things, either. It's therefore my job to show them, rather than tell them, how it's done. It's turning, through good teaching, D's into C's and B's, C's into B's and A's, and students into writers. Sometimes, you start with an F.

She sees grades as the results of a relationship built between the instructor and the student, not as some final word on student ability. She builds that relationship in her writing classes by allowing multiple revisions, a strategy that I also use in my writing classes. She does this because, as she states, "My job was, in fact, to take them from not knowing to knowing." Her job is not to stamp students' papers with a letter, but to teach them, and a grade is a tool in that process.

What Makes a Mother?

This is such a sad story. A woman, due to medical malpractice and complications during the birth of her triplets, is paralyzed. Abbie Dorn "was left unable to move, talk, eat or drink, and now lives with her parents, Susan and Paul Cohen, in Myrtle Beach, S.C."

Her parents contend that she can communicate through facial expression like blinking and smiling, and because of this subtle communication, they are sure that she is able to comprehend things going on around her.

Her ex-husband has custody of the triplets, now four years old, and maintains that she "is in a vegetative state and is incompetent to have visitation rights." He cites concerns over the effect seeing their mother will have on the children, saying that they might feel guilty for causing her condition.

According to this article on Time, a judge made a temporary order (pending a full trial on visitation rights) that Dorn is entitled to five consecutive days of visitation with her children per year:
"The court finds that even though [Dorn] cannot interact with the children, the children can interact with [Dorn] — and that the interaction is beneficial for the children," wrote Judge Frederick Shaller. "They can touch her, see her, bond with her, and can carry those memories with them."
This judge recognizes that the presence of their mother is important for the children's development:
Failure to cultivate a relationship for the children with their mother, wrote Shaller, is likely to cause them “psychological harm that will negatively affect their development and their relationship with their father."
On the edges of this discussion is a broader look at what makes someone a mother. Is it simply biology? [EDIT: And of course, not all mothers are biologically connected to their children, either. The relationships of adoptive mothers and their children also factor into this larger understanding of motherhood.] Biologically, this woman has certainly earned her rights, so much so that the biological process of birthing the children has left her permanently paralyzed. But I think many of us can agree that there are situations where a biological mother might rightfully be denied access to her children. These, however, are cases of abuse or severe neglect. Does mothering require the ability to interact with the children? If so, who determines what level of ability constitutes interaction? Is interaction determined on a case-by-case basis?

Attempts to deny Ms. Dorn rights to see her children seems like a slippery slope. Can we say that a deaf/mute mother cannot appropriately interact with her children? Can we say that a wheelchair-bound woman does not have the mobility to mother? What about someone with limited IQ?

Dorn's parents said that she responded to the judge's orders with a long blink and a smile, so who's to say that she does not benefit from the opportunity to see her children, the children whose very birth caused her to sacrafice her mobility, her communication, her marriage, and her ability to interact in the ways we most readily recognize.

For the moment, the courts seem to be allowing her a chance to interact in the only ways she can. For now, they are allowing her the chance to mother her children.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Feminization and the Adjunct

I've adjuncted for several different classes, mostly freshman-level composition. It's been a wonderful experience that fully affirms my desire to work with students. I love being in the classroom, and I get downright giddy designing syllabi. I constantly keep an eye out for new material to incorporate into my lectures, and I have folders full of potential articles I might use in as-yet-uncreated future classes.

But that doesn't mean it's always easy.

I share a lot of the views that Professor X (the pseduonym of a writer who adjuncts at a private school and a community college) expresses in this article about grade inflation.

He points out the difficulty inherent in maintaining a completely fair grading system. He takes a particularly hard look at the way the culture has shifted to be more forgiving:
We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking -- simply a better student -- than another. So we level the playing field. Slow readers get extra time on tests. Safe harbor laws protect substance abusers. Students who miss class for religious reasons, as it says in the boilerplate language the community college suggests that I place in my course syllabus, may be absent without incurring a penalty.
And then he blames women for it:
There are more women teaching in college than ever, and it is quite possible that their presence, coupled with our discovery of the postmodern narrative, has had a feminizing effect on the collective unconscious of faculty thought. Strong winds of compassion blow across campus quads. Women are more empathetic than men, more giving, simply more bothered by anyone’s underdog status. Many of the female adjuncts I have spoken to seem blessed and cursed by feelings of maternity toward the students. Women think about their actions, and the consequences of their actions, in a deeper way than do men. Women may not be quite as inclined to sigh and, with a murmured "fuck it," half-angry and half-miserable, possessed by the fatalism of someone throwing the first punch in a bar fight, mark an F in the grade book.
I hate giving F's, and I don't give that many, but I also don't think I'm inflating grades, and I certainly don't think that I'm mothering my students into incompetence. I do "think about [my] actions, and the consequences of [my] actions," and I use that forethought to teach my students. I expect that my male colleagues do the same, and if they don't, I'd venture to say they're doing a disservice to their students.

I think that Professor X is on the right track in pointing out that the presence of women is connected to grade inflation. See, there are more women on college campuses than ever before because college campuses used to be very closed to a lot of people: women, minorities, anyone from an economically disadvantaged background, those too geographically isolated, and many more.

Professor X talks about A students and F students and everything in between as if these are facts of life. A student has a certain ability level innately present, the student translates that ability onto a page, and Professor X reads it the way that a price scanner reads a bar code, translating the end result into his grade book.

But if that's the case, that students have an innate level of ability and we're merely the scanners that translate it, what's the point in teaching? No, I think that grades--as much as we'd like to pretend they're objective--are much more complex than that. I grade my students in remedial English differently than I grade an honors course, so obviously there are different shades of A.

Perhaps what's changing the culture of the college campus isn't those overly-sensitive women mothering up the place, but the fact that college campuses are more diverse than they've ever been. Diverse in every sense of the word--in a single classroom I might have a 21-year-old freshman who just got his GED and is trying to get on track after a rough adolesence,  someone who was valedictorian of her suburban college prep high school, a 40-year-old mother of two who has come back part-time after she lost her job, and someone from the country who is the first in his family to go to college. Some are studying abroad, their first semester in the US; some are the children of immigrants who don't speak English at home; some are white; some are black. Some have been preparing for college since they were toddlers. Some had to fight their parents to let them come.

Plus, college used to be a luxury--something only those who truly wanted to delve into the intellectual life chose to pursue. Now it's a necessity--something almost every job requires for promotion and success.

Professor X notes that "[t]he whole system of grades may be too nineteenth century for our modern taste." Perhaps it's not the "whole system of grades" but the idea of grades that have grown out of a system mired in singularity, one not designed for this diverse student body.

In no way am I saying that academic standards don't matter, and I know that part of my job as an instructor is to maintain those standards. But I also think that part of my job as an instructor is to think about those standards holistically, analyzing how they should fit into the larger purpose of the classroom, and that primary purpose is always (for me) to provide an environment in which students (of all backgrounds) can learn.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hush a Moment

I'm doing some research for a paper that I need to finish up from last semester. Right now I'm reading about the rhetoric of silence, and it's got me thinking (although unfortunately not about the research paper, but, you know, thinking is still good).

Silence can serve a lot of roles. It can be forced upon someone, and--as a collective--many voices have been historically silenced, particularly those of racial minorities and women. However, silence is not always a sign of weakness; it can also be a powerful rhetorical choice, both as a defense and as a participatory component of positive discourse.

Someone can choose to remain silent when speech would weaken them. In America, this choice of silence is a right designed to legally protect us. It's also a right that we can use in a variety of situations where the choice to speak could be less favorable, and when invoked in this way, silence is very much an action.

Silence is also a necessary component of conversation. Conversation requires (at least) two voices, and those voices have no space to understand and hear one another without silence. This is why silence is so crucial to listening, and that's a curious thing.

Our world is filled with information: images, audio, video, text. Many of us are tethered to electronic devices that alert us to the most recent news 24 hours a day, and that's news on the global level (I read about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on my laptop when I got up to pump in the middle of the night) to the very local (my iPhone will tell me when someone comments on a Facebook photo I posted). On any given day, I'll have multiple tabs open across the top of my computer screen. In a matter of minutes I can switch from the article I'm reading written years ago, to the opinion piece written days ago, to the weather forecast updated hours ago, and then go and look at the Facebook feed in real time.

There is certainly no shortage of "talk," but silence has become something of a commodity. And if we do not carve out spaces for silence, do we really have the opportunity to listen?

Listening is important not just for our own personal gain (though it certainly improves the way that we process the information we're consuming), but also from a larger, societal viewpoint. In "Dialectical Tensions of Speaking and Silence," Robert L. Scott writes that speaking and remaining silent are "difficult and dangerous. One strives to be understood, both in silences and speaking, but is often misunderstood. However, from misunderstandings, understandings may arise. One must be patient" (7).

We must run the risk of being misunderstood. If someone is going to truly listen to what we have to say--that is, hear it, think about it, process it, and (often) re-appropriate it to improve his/her own view--then misunderstandings are not only possible, but probable. It is only through continued communication (both speech and silences)  that those misunderstandings can be transformed into understanding, and that is where true learning can take place.

Krista Ratcliffe, in "Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretative Invention and a 'Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct,'" takes this idea even further:
" For when  listening within an undivided logos, we do not read simply for what we can agree with or challenge, as is the habit of academic reading (in its multiple guises). Instead, we choose to listen also for the exiled excess and contemplate its relation  to our culture and our selves." (203)
So, by truly listening with the intention to understand (not just hear, not just find something to disagree with so we can write a new conference paper, not just gather enough to drop into a conversation and prove we've been paying attention), by truly trying to understand, we can find both commonalities and differences in our cultural interactions.

If silence allows us the opportunity to hear someone and recognize (and perhaps embrace) the way that person differs from us while simultaneously viewing the commonalities we share, then silence allows a type of learning that we desperately need. But that learning can only happen if we are willing to listen to voices that we disagree with. Ratcliffe explains "we  learn by listening to those who do not agree with us, provided the listening occurs in the context of 'genuine conversation'" (212).

That means that we cannot consume media from only one source and surround ourselves entirely by others who share our views on politics, parenting, economics, etc. It means that the greatest opportunity for learning takes place in the most diverse of environments. How diverse are the spaces in your life? And how silent?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Princess and the Frog: One of the Guys? (Part 2)

As promised, I'm writing to take a closer look at gender roles in Disney's The Princess and the Frog. As I explored in the previous post, I think that there are still a lot of racial complications in this film. There are also some negative gender stereotypes portrayed, but, for the most part, I see a lot of progressive work going on in breaking down the standard princess-must-find-a-prince tale.

The Backdrop

In order to give the film credit where credit is due, we have to take a quick look at the way the Princess trope has played out in films past.

Wikipedia lists the following Princesses as part of the franchise: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana.

I haven't seen Mulan, but I have seen the rest. The general theme can be summed up pretty quickly: the women, characterized mainly by their sweetness and beauty, have to be rescued by princes, characterized by pretty much nothing other than being men. (With the exception of Beast--he's characterized by violence and depression.)

So, what does TPATF do with this trope?

Tiana isn't waiting around for a prince. She has a dream, and her supportive parents helped her to grow into a woman who would work to make it come true. She wants to own her own restaurant so that she can share her talent of cooking with others while making a nice life for herself.

It's Charlotte who fits the typical princess trope, and her role in the film works to (gently) mock it.

As Elena Perez explains in this article heralding TPATF as a feminist success:
On the flip side, we have Charlotte LaBouff (Lottie), passively sitting and waiting for her prince to appear like a good Disney princess.  But she is clearly not the heroine, and the audience is expected to roll their eyes at her behavior, not to want to emulate it.
She's not the only one who sees the film as promoting feminist themes. Rose at Feministing has an article analyzing the way the film portrays non-traditional gender roles throughout:

[T]he themes of entrepreneurship and division of labor in the household were so crucial to the film it was kryptonite for any red-blooded feminist. The idea that men can and should play a role in food preparation and that women can own their own business while building viable, healthy relationships was so groundbreaking for a movie with the word “princess” in the title. For this, Disney deserves their props.

Rose also points out the problematic fact that Tiana is still saved (in this case, changed from a frog back into a human) by marrying a prince. But, as Matthew Belinkie points out:

But she doesn’t seem to care that he’s a prince at all; there’s no indication they even visit his country. Instead, she builds her own palace. This is like if at the end of Coming to America, Eddie Murphy decided to stay in Queens and help Lisa open a whole chain of McDowell’s restaurants.

The thing that I find the most refreshing about the gender roles in TPATF, however, isn't illustrated through Tiana at all. It's the character development of Prince Naveen.

In the other Princess films, the princes are lucky to say more than a few lines. We focus a lot on how the princesses get trapped into waiting for a prince to save them, but the princes are equally trapped, and they are completely stagnated by that role, unable to develop at all. Their characters are almost entirely static. Beauty and the Beast broke out of this box a little, but only to first move the prince backward, making him into a monster that then gets to turn into the personality-deprived typical prince.

We also focus a lot on how the image of beauty portrayed by the princesses is unrealistic, but the masculinity portrayed through the physicality of the princes is equally problematic. I've linked to this before, but here's a video discussing the way Disney movies create problematic body images of men:

The Princess and the Frog moves away from these habits.

For the body image problem, Naveen's frog-body works to undercut the tall, broad-chested, muscular version of princes we normally get. Naveen develops into a dynamic character before he ever changes back into a human, illustrating that it is not the masculine body that gives him this opportunity.

Prince Naveen starts out with a fairly undesirable personality, but it is a personality. His intial qualities are summed up pretty well in the song "When We're Human Beings." He's a lazy, privileged womanizer who can't wait to return to his human form and marry someone with money so that he can return to a life of leisure. (It's pretty sad when this is an improvement over the previous princes).

But we can't really blame him for being this way. After all, it's the logical conclusion of the prince trope. If a prince gets to sit around in luxury until the one moment he's needed to rush off and kiss some sleeping/trapped/poisoned princess before slipping into happily ever after, he's probably not going to be too motivated to work hard or learn conversation skills.

But Naveen's interactions with Tiana are different. He can't win her over with a kiss (in fact, the kiss is what turns her into a frog and takes her further away from her dream of owning a restaurant). He's not the solution; he's the problem. While they interact, they actually get to know one another. (Granted, the courtship is still a matter of days--probably not long enough to justify the marriage that quickly follows, but it's a start).

It's only after getting to known Tiana that Naveen becomes attracted to her, eventually leading to a (almost) proposal. During the proposal, Naveen tells Tiana, "You've been quite an influence on me." Later in the scene he says that he has dated "thousands of women" but that Tiana "could not be more different" because she is "practically one of the guys."

Tiana illustrates to Naveen that a woman does not have to stay fixed in the ascribed gender roles (though I do think it's problematic that the only language he has for this is calling her "one of the guys," denying her the ability to have both agency and femininity, but he recognizes his mistake and backtracks). By seeing that she has stepped outside of those roles, he finally finds the freedom to step outside of his. He is no longer looking for a woman who needs him to rescue her. He's now looking for a partner, one who joins him out of companionship, compatibility, and love.

This is underscored by the scene that unfolds after their marriage. They buy Tiana's restaurant not with his royal riches (because he's presumably still cut off from the money), but with Tiana's hard-earned waitress tips. They fix the place up themselves, working side by side. They are truly working together to make what is now a joint dream into a reality.

I know that some feminist see the fact that Tiana is willing to give up her chance to be human because she's fallen in love with Naveen as a bad sign, but the recognition that meaningful relationships are more important than monetary goals is still something I can get behind. And it is only Tiana's independence, personality, and hard work that give Naveen the chance to develop into a non-stereotypical prince. Gender roles exist as a dichotomy, so breaking down one gives us the chance to break down the other.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning the Hard Way

Alison Gopnik wrote "Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School." In it, she discusses two separate studies which suggest children are more likely to explore, be creative, and come up with novel approaches to problem solving when they are given freedom in a less structured environment rather than instructed on how to proceed. She uses these studies to turn a critical lens on incentives (like those outlined in No Child Left Behind) for preschools and kindergartens to become more instruction-centered.

This article is interesting to me on two fronts: as an educator and as a mother.

As a mother, I am already looking at preschools and already overwhelmed. I live in an urban area, so there are a lot of options, but it's an urban area with an under-performing public school system, so it gets very complicated. One of the things I've wondered about is what philosophical underpinning is best. I've looked at some Montessori schools, some preschools attached to elementary schools, and some more relaxed daycare settings. My daughter is three months old, so I'm in no rush to decide, and I think a large part of the decision is going to depend on her personal development and individual personality.

As an educator, though, the results of the study ring true to me. I adjunct a few classes at a private university with overall good students. The hardest part of teaching, by far, is getting these students to think independently. They have been trained to prioritize information based on what's going to be on the test, and they tend to get a little panicky if there's not a definite answer to write in their notes. I am constantly trying to get them to question the information they're consuming, but it's a difficult battle.

I know this is exacerbated by the fact that most of my students are freshmen and therefore still figuring out how to navigate a college environment, but I can't help but think this anecdotal evidence in support of what Gopnik is saying. People, not just preschoolers, need the chance to explore freely outside of the confines of standardized answers. After all, no one ever discovered anything new by studying what is already known.

[Edit: I think we also have to consider what kind of pressure we're applying to preschoolers when a parent pays $19,000/year for pre-school education and then sues the school for not properly preparing the 4-year-old for the Ivy League.]

The Princess and the Frog: Thou Doth Protest Too Much, Maybe (Part 1)

I watched The Princess and the Frog yesterday. As I've discussed before, my relationship with the Disney Princesses is complex and tentative. I worry about the way the films portray gender roles, how they stagnate men's personalities and glorify muscular builds, how they portray an unrealistic (and Euro-normative) view of feminine beauty, and (perhaps most of all) how they tend to illustrate finding a husband as the top priority for a woman's pursuits. TPATF did in no way assuage all of these fears, but my reaction is less one-sided than it has been for the earlier Princesses. I'm going to try to break it down.

I see two major issues at stake in this piece of media: race and gender. I'm going to look at race first.

 The first African American Disney Princess! A step in the right direction? A mere profit-driven pitch to appease minority viewers? A platform for 21st century expansion of Disney's well-documented problems with portraying non-white characters?

Even before the movie was released, critics were analyzing the trailer for clues as to where TPATF would fit in the larger discussion of race. Consider this post by Gwen Sharp on The Society Pages.
Sharp analyzes the trailer, a video game, and trading cards for racial stereotypes (which she finds, without much difficulty--the evil witch doctor is black and reminds Sharp of pimp stereotypes, Tiana was originally cast as a maid, one of the cards contains the phrase "it's not in yo' cards.") She comes to this conclusion:
Disney may have intentionally tapped into those cultural images when Tiana was originally imagined as a maid for a White character (as well as including other stereotypical elements). Or the creators may have unthinkingly reproduced stereotypes because, when thinking about characters to use in a movie set in New Orleans with a Black protagonist, they drew on existing cultural imagery. In the absence of a concerted, thoughtful effort to avoid reproducing them, it’s not surprising that problematic elements show up in TV shows, movies, and so on. 
Why all this concern before the film has even been released? Why not wait and analyze the film on its own merit?
Shannon Prince gives some insight into this phenomenon in a post at Racialicious:
Whites have made countless demands about their heroines, and Disney has altered their creations in response to those demands. Yet whites also know that if any given princess isn’t pleasing, in a few years another will be created. This is the first and most likely last black Disney princess. After all, while Disney repeatedly makes white princesses, it has yet to create more than one princess from the same minority ethnic group. In that light, it’s important to get Tiana right on the first (and probably only) shot.

The criticism began early because people genuinely wanted the movie to be good, but the risks were high.

So how did they do?

The Bad

  • Ray the Cajun Firefly- He's toothless. He's crass. He talks like this:

    Ray is a lovable character, but it's hard to argue that negative stereotypes about Cajuns aren't surfacing here. (And the president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana agrees.)
  • The frog hunters-

    The frog hunters are clear portrayals of the southern redneck stereotype. They speak with broken grammar, are caricatured as unintelligent, and are quick to resort to physical violence.
Both of those examples are similar to the problem illustrated in Mulan. There is diversification and depth to the Chinese characterization, but the Huns are (as Shannon Prince explains) "a mass of gray-skinned, barely human, rampaging savages." It's as if Disney can only manage to treat one group of minorities as fully functioning human beings at a time.
  • "Dig a Little Deeper"- Mama Odie (the good voodoo woman) sings this song to Tiana and Prince Naveen when they express that they just want to be human again. The song has a great message that I totally believe in: it's what's inside that counts. However, I find it interesting that this message is prominent in the film featuring the first African American Disney Princess. It feels a little like an excuse for having a black princess. As Prince pointed out in her post about the show, Tiana spends much of the screen time as a frog:
    Perhaps in the scenes where Tiana is hopping around in her toady body whites in the audience will forget how melanin-endowed she was in the movie’s opening and identify with her. Still, I can’t help but wonder if The Princess and the Frog came down with a case of Esmeralda’s Eyes syndrome – if this was Disney’s way of saying to white audiences, “Yes, Tiana’s black, but not really.”
    The message to "Dig a Little Deeper" could function in the same way, a call to ignore Tiana's race.
The Good
I used this tool ("10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism") to view TPATF again. Here are some of the points where I feel like it's making some racial headway.

  • "Look for tokenism. If racial minority characters appear in the illustrations, do they look like white people except for being tinted or colored? Do all minorities look stereotypically alike, or are they depicted as individuals with distinctive features?"
    • With the exception of the characters I pointed out above, the black characters are portrayed as individuals with distinctive features, and they are not just darkened versions of white characters.
  • "Standard for success: Does it take “white” behavior standards for a minority person to “get
    ahead?” Is “making it” in the dominant white society projected as the only ideal?"
    • Tiana finds success through hard work, perseverance, and love, characteristics she learns from her parents. Though she does only meet the prince by putting on the white "princess" character's (Lottie) clothes, this isn't really a part of her ultimate dream. She dreams to own her own business, and she's making that a reality before the frog enters the picture. Also, Tiana is an active participant of a multicultural society. Though white privilege is illustrated throughout, I'd be angry if it wasn't. That privilege is a reality, and it's illustration in children's media allows an outlet for open dialogue about it.
  • "How are family relationships depicted? In black families is the mother always dominant? In Hispanic

    families are there always many children? If the family is separated, are social conditions –unemployment and poverty, for example – cited as reasons for the separation?" 
    • Tiana's father (though dead in her adult life, but hey at least Disney let the mom live for once) is portrayed as a hardworking, good-hearted family man who loves his wife and daughter. Tiana's mother is a supportive character who collaborates with her husband and, later, adult child to make a good life.
The Complicated
Much has been made of Prince Naveen's race.
Shannon Prince has a problem with it:
First, Tiana, the black princess, is paired up with a white prince (or at least a prince who looks white and is voiced by a Brazilian actor who also looks white) who has to save her from a black villain.
Allison Samuels sees Prince Naveen as a commentary on interracial dating in the black community:
Prince Naveen has a tannish complexion, but he clearly isn't African-American. My fear is that for many in the black community, the fairy tale may just end right there.
Over at This Black Sista's Page:
Can’t a black couple walk hand in hand into the sunset and the future? Does it always have to be a white guy, or a white-looking guy? I don’t mind a sista or a brotha getting their swerve on with others of the human race, but this is getting to be a habit–and an excuse–among filmmakers.
So Naveen's race is a bit of a mystery, but I would argue that, though he isn't portrayed as African American, he's clearly non-white. He's from the fictional Maldonia and has a Brazilian accent. This clip shows him interacting with New Orleanians of various races (it's in Polish, but the point remains the same):

As someone who is in an interracial relationship, I have to say that I haven't noticed many interracial relationships portrayed in pop culture, especially not to the point that it's "getting to be a habit." And, to be honest, I kind of like that Prince Naveen doesn't have a clear racial identity. Racial identity is inherently subjective because it is based not on biology but cultural norms. Since Naveen is transported into a time and place rich in racial identity (1920's New Orleans) from a fictional and therefore undefined cultural setting, his combination of "white" features, olive-colored skin, and Latino voice can function to stir up a discussion about where race gets defined (and it's clearly done a good job of it).

The Final Call

TPATF is not without its racial problems, but I do think that this is a step in the right direction. Disney is falling into some cultural stereotypes (especially with their Cajun firefly and swamp-dwelling frog hunters), but there are also signs of attempts to truly break down the over-simplification of race. The bottom line? I'd let my daughter watch it, and I'd use it as a platform to talk about some of the complications of race.

(Part 2 will take a look at gender roles in the film)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Everything Old is New Again

NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour last week revolved around elements of pop culture that people should be sure to share with their children. (Listen here). The group suggested such entertainment relics as PeeWee's Funhouse and Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Though the suggestions were individualized and varied in both taste and medium, one common factor seemed to be enjoyability for the parent as well as the child. They praised shows that contained wit that operated on dual levels. They also talked about how you should expose children to these types of pop culture early; even if they don't get it right away, they are picking up humor tropes and ways to set up language. It got me thinking about some of my own favorite pop culture that I can't wait to share with my daughter:

 1) Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends

In the spirit of early exposure, this is one of the pop culture pieces I remember fondly that I've already started sharing with my daughter. The poems are funny and smart, and I think that the rhythm makes them enjoyable even for my three-month-old.

2) Boy Meets World

I love this show more than I should probably admit. I didn't have regular television channels when I was growing up (we only had satellite because we lived in the sticks, and we didn't have access to local channels on it), so I was late discovering Boy Meets World, but once it re-ran on The Disney Channel, I watched and re-watched it. Excitingly, and after a long hiatus, the later seasons are supposed to be coming out on DVD. When they do, I'm going to get the series, and I hope my daughter enjoys it half as much as I do.

3) The City Museum
To be fair, The City Museum is not pop culture that can be "consumed" in quite the same way as the other examples, but it's my favorite place, and I cannot wait until I can take my daughter there. This is really the type of place you just need to experience for yourself, but if you aren't coming to St. Louis any time soon, here's some pictures to give you an idea.

4. Blue's Clues
This show premiered when my little brother was 9 months old, so I was well aware of the Blue's Clues phenomenon. Even before he could talk, my brother would scream with glee at the end of the mail song.  At two, my brother was hospitalized after an appendectomy. I recorded (on VHS, no less) episodes of the show to watch while he recovered, and while I was recording them I fell in love with the show (and it's adorable host, Steve). 

The show is smart and fun. It illustrates the value of deductive reasoning, attention to detail, and collaborative thinking. Oh, and it's also crazy cute. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Holy Gender Wednesday!

Usually my life feels a little disparate. I am interested in a lot of different things, and I bring these things into my life through various roles, professional and personal. They all connect in my mind, but they rarely line up neatly to any external viewer. Today was different. Today all of these things happened:
  1. I went to a discussion on the campus I work about gender identity because I had assigned my students to go as part of a cultural enrichment component. The conversation was interesting, though a lot of it was stuff I had heard before. 
  2. My husband and I participated in a graduate student's research on equitable marriages by taking part in a one-hour interview on the subject. 
  3. I saw a website called Born This Way! that, by it's own definition, is "A photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves. Nurture allows what nature endows. It's their nature, their truth!" 
  4. I read this article (yeah, I'm behind the times) about a Swedish baby who was raised genderless. 
  5. In my city, a teacher was dismissed from her job (for the second time, it turns out) when a student discovered her in an old porn film. 
This kind of submersion in a topic generally leaves me questioning and curious, and this is certainly the case tonight. 

At the gender identity discussion, we were asked (as small groups) to make a list of qualities under the word "woman" and a list of qualities under the word "man." As you can imagine, qualities like "muscular" and "provider" were listed under "man," and qualities like "nurturing" and "pretty" were listed under "woman." In addition, the terms "XX" and "vagina" were listed under "woman," while "XY" and "penis" were listed under "man." The facilitator then asked us if any of the terms we'd written were necessarily restricted to that heading. Someone in the room said that the biological terms were the only ones that had that restriction (XX/vagina, XY/penis). Someone in the front of the room spoke up to say that wasn't true. This person stated "I am a man with a vagina." Born with female genitalia and XX chromosomes, this individual self-identified as male, and preferred male pronouns in reference to himself. 

Later in the conversation, we talked about Pop, the Swedish child who is being raised with a "secret gender." According to the NYT's article, "Pop’s parents, who are both 24, say they made this decision in the hope of freeing their child from the artificial construct of gender." The same participant spoke up to say that members of the trans community had discussed this child's upbringing with skepticism, noting that society was ill-prepared for gender neutrality.

This is where I started to get confused. I don't think I was particularly equipped to voice my confusion then, and I'm not sure if I'm any better equipped now, but I'm going to give it a shot.

This whole discussion is part of a series on campus that aims to examine systems of oppression--the "isms" if you will. I spend a lot of my time thinking, writing, and reading about racism, so I used the things I understand about that system of oppression in order to better understand genderism. Most (not all) of the anti-racist work I've read considers post-racialism to be the ultimate goal of anti-racist work. Post-racialism makes sense to me because I understand race to be entirely culturally constructed. If we've artificially created these labels, we have the power to remove them. I don't necessarily think that identity based on race is a "bad" thing, but I do think that as long as race exists, racism--in some form--will, too.

So I tried to carry that same line of thought out when it came to gender. I understand and accept the idea that someone born with female genitalia could identify as a male. I understand gender as a continuum, not a binary. However, I had trouble seeing "gender neutrality" as the goal of anti-genderism work, mainly because I couldn't envision a world without gender.

It's quite possible that I'm just not progressed enough in my thoughts and I am being short-sighted or close-minded. I am very open to hearing other's thoughts on this.

But right now, this is how I see it. The man who spoke up says that he identifies as a male, but that's a label within the gender identities. He didn't say that he was born with female genitalia but doesn't identify as any gender; he says he identifies as a man. Obviously, then, the gender constructs we currently have are functionally necessary to the construction of that reality. Is gender neutrality really the goal, then? Or is the goal to have the continuum from masculine to feminine, but to discredit external attempts to place someone on that spectrum and validate only individual self-identification?

I can imagine a post-racial world (though I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime), but I can't picture a post-gender world. Even if we did away with the terms "woman" and "man," procreation would serve to illustrate differences between those with penises and those with vaginas. I can't completely explain why, but gender feels less artificially constructed than race does to me. I fully believe that the roles we associate with each gender (caregivers v. providers/ dominant v. passive/ etc.) are artificially constructed, but the identifying labels themselves feel much more fixed. What do you think?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Back in the Game

My little girl got her first cold, which was very sad. Then she gave it to me, which made it miserable and sad. I've been skating by in a (thanks to breastfeeding) cold-medicine-free haze, and I taught four classes without being able to speak above a whisper. But I'm back! While I was hacking and coughing, I read some articles at Salon that had me raising an eyebrow with suspicion, and I was going to blog about it, but then  I saw that L.M. Fenton had beaten me to it and done a pretty good job of articulating what had bothered me about it in the first place. 

But there was one of the three (somewhat)-anti-motherhood pieces Salon posted that I wanted to pick apart in a little more detail. Mary Elizabeth Williams' subheading for her article regarding Natalie Portman's acceptance speech reads "In her acceptance speech, the 'Black Swan' star suggests pregnancy trumps a career. She's wrong."

Excuse me.

I'm pretty sure that Natalie Portman gets to be the one to determine the greatest role in her own life.

Williams goes on to say:
Any working mom will tell you: They don't hand out prizes for being a good mother. You just do it, with as much love and heart and soul as you've got. If you're lucky, it doesn't diminish you as an artist -- it inspires you to greater heights, as this year's mothers nominated for playing mothers -- Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams and Annette Bening -- probably know. Motherhood is important. So is work. And you don't have to backhandedly downplay one to be proud of the other.
I didn't see Portman's comment as "backhandedly downplay[ing]" anything. She gave a gracious acceptance speech for an award she worked hard for. How can motherhood simultaneously "inspire [her] to greater heights" and get marked as a role she shouldn't mention out loud? Williams calls Portman out for downplaying the role of an actress in favor of the role of mother (which I don't think she did), and in doing so asks that she downplay the role of mother in favor of that of actress (and by extension, any other career-minded definition of success). 

I love my job. It is rewarding, and in a field that I feel directly makes a difference with issues that mean a lot to me. I'm good at it, and I feel fulfilled when I do it. But I still consider my role as a mother to be "greater." It's greater in many ways. I work eight hours a day. I am a mother constantly. If I decided to quit my job, someone else could do it. If I just walked away from my role as a mother, there wouldn't be a replacement. I am not planning on staying in this job for the rest of my life, but I will be my daughter's mother forever.

Williams says "the comment jarred me, as it does every time anyone refers to motherhood as the most important thing a woman can possibly do." Portman didn't say that, but fine. I know that there was a time when a woman's role as mother was seen as a requirement above all else. A time when women were trapped by that role. And I know that those pressures still exist, but forcing women to deny the way they feel about motherhood is no better.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Pill for Men

Scientists in Indonesia have figured out how to create a male birth control pill by extracting a plant substance that keeps sperm from fertilizing eggs.

This article looks at how in Indonesia (and in China, where male birth control is researched intensively), the primary motivation is population control. In contrast, development of new medicines in the U.S. are primarily profit-driven, and the male pill doesn't look like a seller:

A recent study by the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 80 percent of women who’ve ever had sex with a man used birth control pills at some point. A male birth control pill could eat into this massive market. And because other options already exist — condoms and vasectomies — the male birth control pill would need to sell for a relatively cheap price.
I found it surprising that 60% of the men polled in Germany, Spain, Mexico, and Brazil indicated they would be willing to take a birth control pill. Most of the American men I've discussed it with seem hesitant at best and often turn down the idea outright.

Birth control ads have so long put the onus of responsibility on women that I think that will be a hard standard to dismantle. Though ads for condoms have a more shared view of reproductive health, ads for other forms of birth control do not.

This Yaz commercial barely even mentions the fact that its intended purpose is to prevent pregnancy. Instead, it focuses on the benefits to women: lighter periods, treatment of mood swings, clearer skin. Likewise, the images are all of lone women, bringing to mind liberation and self-fulfillment. There are a few men shown in the background as the women walk by, but they are not a part of the equation at all.

This Nuva Ring commercial features no men at all. Instead, it focuses on the burden that women have to carry by taking a daily birth control pill, and it offers them a solution in the form of this once-a-month option. The women who make this step appear less burdened and happy to interact with each other, but men are not a part of the decision because they weren't a part of the original burden.

Okay, so at least this Mirena commercial features a man (and a father, at that!) But let's look a little closer. The motivation for choosing Mirena is that life as a parent is so hectic that this mother cannot handle the burden of constantly thinking about birth control, so she picks a long-term option. To drive home the point of how busy she is, the commercial shows the mom chasing her kids through the grocery store while she shops, cleaning, and wrestling playfully with her children. The dad's biggest inconvenience? Having his M&M's or whatever stolen by his kids as he leisurely reads the paper.

I get it. These products are going to be purchased by women. Women are the ones who use them. So it makes sense to target women in the ads, but I wonder what this kind of marketing has done to our ability to see birth control as a man's responsibility?

Not that it really matters. The article also says this:
But U.S. regulations are likely to prevent American men from accessing these recent developments anytime soon.

Before authorizing a pill’s U.S. release, the federal Food and Drug Administration would likely want scientists to repeat many studies conducted abroad, though some of the data could “potentially be re-used in an application,” Lissner said. The entire process, she estimated, could take five to 10 years.