Monday, October 31, 2011

Step Into My Parlor. . .

My little girl is cutting her third tooth in three weeks, and whenever she isn't feeling well she thinks that I'm a magic talisman that can heal her as long as she stays physically attached to me. This, in addition to driving me a little crazy, inspired our Halloween costumes: spider and web.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Some Halloween Thoughts: Costuming, Appropriation, and Stereotypes

I love Halloween. I love the fun-spirited decorations, the chance to have fun with friends, and the fact that you can enjoy Halloween simplistically or elaborately. It's fun for children and adults alike, and it happens in the autumnal beauty of the best time of year.

But that same sense of free-wheeling fun opens some doors to deep-seated issues. You've probably seen the campaign started by Taylor See and her friends from Ohio University. "We're a Culture, Not A Costume," the series of pictures reads, each with someone from a minority group holding up a picture of his/her culture being boiled down into one stereotype for a Halloween costume.

Many people praised the effort to raise awareness about the consequences of such demeaning costume decisions. Others took it as an opportunity to mock the attempt. By copying the style of the campaign, an internet meme has popped up mocking its message. It includes things like a golden retriever holding a picture of a man in a dog costume, a cartoon unicorn holding a picture of someone in a unicorn costume, etc.

The mockery ranged from the silly to the mindlessly cruel, escalating to a picture of a monkey holding up a picture of Taylor See herself, an African American woman.

She took the high road, responding to this blatant racism by saying, "That was just awful. The fact that people think that's OK shows why this discussion is still relevant and important, unfortunately."

Many of the people participating in the mocking photos say they are doing so to point out the need for people to lighten up, to see a costume as just a costume.

But what is a costume, really?

Even playful articles, like this one from MSN revealing what your costume says about you, point out that costuming is a conscious choice that reveals something about the costume-wearer:
“Halloween costumes are often an open window to some of your inner desires, buried feelings, or subconscious,” says Nancy W. Berk, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Pittsburgh, PA. A costume could grant a one-night reprieve from being “pent up,” thus opening the door to life on the wild side or lets you finally show off the witty personality you suppress to maintain a professional persona. “It’s a safe way to express things like sexuality and allows someone to be irreverent without many, or any, consequences,” Berk says.
Indeed, the very concept of being able to release suppressed thoughts in a public forum has been at the base of costuming in general. Consider the Mardi Gras Krewe du Vieux who always use the Carnival as an opportunity to voice an irreverent opinion on political issues. They took the 2006 Mardi Gras parade as a chance to mock the response to Hurricane Katrina with signs asking France to buy back Louisiana and a group of marchers using a "Fridge over Troubled Water" theme. A USA Today article from the time points out the need for healing through satire:
Mardi Gras has long been an occasion for the city to laugh at tragedy and aim barbs at authorities, and given all the pain New Orleans has suffered in the past year the irreverence should reach new heights this season.
Costuming, at it's very core, is about the ability to express something that can't always be expressed. A chance to be someone you are usually not. Sometimes, that something is silly, but perhaps silliness is what's missing from the costume-wearer's daily life. That's been at the core of many of my costumes. One year I went as a blue crayon. I wasn't making a political statement, but I was taking an opportunity to be silly and carefree in the midst of a typically busy and serious lifestyle.

Sometimes, costumes can offend other people. I'm sure that were politicians and others in charge during the  Katrina crisis that were offended by the Krewe du Vieux. That's kind of the point. The costumes acted as a way to express a frustration with the system that would otherwise go unheard. It was a platform for discussion that reached people in a way no other form of communication would. I'm not saying that a costume can never offend and that just because someone is offended we have to stop using them.

However, I feel the people who think the "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign needs to lighten up are not truly examining the implications of such costumes. And doing so might seem a bit frightening because no one wants to admit to participating (even as a spectator) in a racist or oppressive culture.

But that's exactly what happens when people put on a costume and appropriate a culture. This article from Bitch Magazine on the topic received a lot of negative comments, mostly calls for people to--again--"lighten up." The comments prompted Adrienne K. to respond in an open letter on Native Appropriations:
I already know how our conversation would go. I'll ask you to please not dress up as a bastardized version of my culture for Halloween, and you'll reply that it's "just for fun" and I should "get over it." You'll tell me that you "weren't doing it to be offensive" and that "everyone knows real Native Americans don't dress like this." You'll say that you have a "right" to dress up as "whatever you damn well please." You'll remind me about how you're "Irish" and the "Irish we're oppressed too." Or you'll say you're "German", and you "don't get offended by people in Lederhosen." 
But you don't understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone mis-representing your people and your culture. You don't have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don't walk through life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don't represent who you are at all. You don't know what it's like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it's so wrong, and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you're some sort of over-sensitive freak.
At the very least, continuing to dress up in stereotypical ways dismisses real people's responses. Even if the costume-wearers didn't intend to offend anyone with these costume (and, honestly, racism and culture appropriation are so common in this culture, that I can see how some people--especially those who haven't had to deal with being stereotyped or mocked themselves--could truly think their costumes were just for fun), they can't continue to say that now that people are coming forward and saying, "Hey, I'm offended." To continue to degrade and stereotype entire cultures of people under the guise of "fun" is to dismiss these heartfelt and eloquent calls for recognition. Once you know that someone is offended by your actions, if you keep doing them, your intention is to offend. And, you're right, you have the "right"--whatever that's worth--to continue doing so. Free speech means you can put on your "PocaHottie" costume and enjoy your night, but it does not mean that you get to do so without consequences, and one of those consequences is denying the validity of the pain that action causes. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Making Decisions about the Rest of Your Life? Relax!

Middle Fork Salmon River, Idaho

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
. . .
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--Robert Frost

As I've mentioned, my full-time job is to coordinate a program that helps underrepresented students get into graduate school. And--as any of you with experience in higher ed know--this is the time for graduate application freak outs. It wasn't that long ago for me that I had sat on the edge of that cliff, looking out into the unknown. Where would I live? What would I become? What would it cost? Will my friends still be my friends if I move away? What will I miss? What will I gain?

Today, a student came to my office distressed over her attempts to choose between two possible fields in graduate studies. I'm not making light of her decision; it is a big one, and it does matter. Just not quite as much as it seems. 

See, Robert Frost was acting very much the way my graduating seniors are acting (and the way we all tend to act when faced with a big decision). We examine our options and then "look down one as far as we can," but that's never far enough. We might be able to see that a decision to medical school means a more definite career path with more debt while a decision for a PhD in biology means less debt and more uncertainty, but we can't figure out what happens after that because it hasn't happened yet. 

And, the truth is, choosing a graduate school (or whether or not to move to a new city, or whatever it is you're deciding) is a choice that shapes us, but it's not a choice that necessarily determines us. We are more than the logical conclusion of a single choice (or even a series of big decisions). We are individuals shaped by a series of experiences large and small, within our control and outside of it, good and bad. 

I think of it like a float trip (for those of you who live in cities where there are exciting things to do and so you do not have to spend your summer weekends floating down rivers on inflated rafts, well, I'm sorry that you're missing out on important metaphorical experiences). See, on float trips, there are often divergent paths in the river. They often bend, and just like Frost's infamous paths, we can't see the end of either one, so we have to make a choice. It's often a rapid choice, made by a combination of whimsy, following (or defying) the flow of the river, determining which one looks safer (and whether or not it's danger we crave), and how many drinks we have had. 

If we choose the one on the left, we might be in for a rough ride. We may get scratched up by the low-lying limbs on either side of the current. We may hit a patch of rapids and get spun around, getting passed by two guys blaring AC/DC from their canoe, landing with a thud on top of a sunken tree trunk, electing the most sober among the crew to sacrifice by diving back in and swim while pulling us to safety. 

If we choose the one on the right, we might be in for a slower trip. We may casually follow the flow of a lazy river through a shallow bend. We might get stuck on the rocks that protrude ever so slightly from the top of the water, forcing everyone in the boat to get out, wade ankle-deep and pull and then--without an ounce of grace--flop back into the raft before it floats away unmanned. And we might have to do it all while the other four or five rafts that chose this path bump into us. 

But do you know what happens at the end? The paths merge. We all end up at the pick-up point. 

That's not to say that it doesn't matter which one you choose. See, a float trip is less about the actual trip and more about the memories and stories you collect and share. You only get one path's worth of memories and stories. You can't have them both. And even if you went back and traveled the other way the next time, it wouldn't be the same. 

I believe that our lives are too complex to be determined by one choice, but that doesn't mean those decisions don't shape us. When my student makes a decision about which field she will study in graduate school, she will choose which lens she will use to view her future profession and her future research. That doesn't mean, however, that she has to cut herself off from all of the possibilities of how her two interests combine. She can end up in the same place--a scholar with multiple interests--with a slightly different story to tell. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sparring in Short Skirts: Sexism in Sports

West Point Women's Boxing_007

Confused? Can't figure out if you're looking at men or women? The Amateur International Boxing Association suspected as much, so they want to make it easier on you--by making women wear skirts during international competitions (you know, like the Olympics, where women's boxing may be featured for the first time in 2012). Their reasoning? It's too hard to tell female and male boxers apart. 

So far, the AIBA says that they are just trying it out and it's not mandatory, however, in an interview with Michael Rivest, the president of AIBA (Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu) said, "After we hear about its comfort and how easy it is to compete in the uniform, it may be compulsory." And it already is for boxers in Poland, who felt that the skirts were more "elegant" and "womanly."

Right. Because boxing, a sport filled with blood, sweat, and repeatedly punching one another in the face is the perfect platform to dress up as a display of "elegance." That's not to say that boxing isn't womanly--indeed, I think that the women who excel at it show just how "womanly" it can be, but to expect women to perform as stereotypes while also performing as skilled athletes is insulting. 

As Rivest explains, "These are warriors, folks. AIBA may as well have handed them a mop."

And if people really can't tell the men and women boxers apart (which I kind of doubt, but hey, it's not my argument), what's so bad about that? Aren't people watching them for the same reason: to see a skilled athletic performance? If you can't tell whether you're watching a man or a woman, doesn't that just prove that the athleticism is front and center, breaking down even gender stereotypes through hard work and agility? 

Keeping Kids in Their Place--Blurry Lines

I just returned from vacation in New Orleans, a city I love for its great food and vibrant culture. That same culture, however, can make vacationing with a kid tricky.

Rue Bourbon (bourbon st.)

We stayed at a hotel a few blocks away from the French Quarter, and we walked toward the Quarter for a late lunch, my daughter (10 months old) strapped to my back in the Boba carrier. We walked to Jackson Square, watched the street performers, bought a piece of artwork, and had some lunch. I let my daughter run around in the Square to practice her newly minted balancing skills. 

We weren't the only people with kids around, but there were certainly fewer than I see in most cities. As we walked back, I was careful to stray no further toward Bourbon Street, though my daughter was excited to hear the music coming from that direction. 

Later, my husband and I went down to Bourbon on our own while my mom watched our daughter. It was dusk, around 7pm. We were there a few hours, and the street got more crowded and louder as the night went on. Occasionally, I saw couples pushing (or attempting to push) strollers through the crowd. The babies inside were usually sleeping or looking around in awe. 

I didn't consider taking my daughter onto Bourbon Street, but the sight of those few errant strollers prompted me to dig a little deeper into why I had made that decision. 

First of all, I am not one of those parents that think kids belong everywhere. When McDain's restaurant made headlines for banning young children, I wondered if it was a smart business decision, but I didn't feel insulted. I understand why people (parents included!) would want the ability to escape to a  child-free space. 

Some spaces are designed for adult activities and themes and--even if you don't have a problem with your child witnessing those themes--placing them in the environment can disrupt it in a way that makes the space awkward for others. Some friends of mine were at a bar watching sports, drinking, and chatting (you know--bar things). One of them dropped a "fuck" into his casual statement and the other leaned in and said "Watch your mouth! There's a baby over there!" "It's a bar!" the first responded. 

And what about people who just don't want to be around kids? That was the main idea behind pushes for child-free flights, a "luxury" people suggested they would willingly pay for. 

Sometimes the presence of children might literally change the way a space can be used. Consider this gym patron who laments the loss of pool space and the change in the culture of the gym when parents were allowed to bring their children (for a fee).
Birthday at Hooters
The decision to ban children from a restaurant or to make child-free flights is largely based on what kids can do the atmosphere of a place, but that's a two-way street, and there's equal concern over what the atmosphere does to our kids. This lesson was front and center when one man blogged about taking his 11-year-old son to Hooters and was blasted for the messages he was sending his child about sex and (dis)respecting women.

Sometimes, placing a child into an adult context is just a not very well thought-out decision, but sometimes it's exactly the point. The NY Times reports that more and more parents are bringing their children to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Many say they want their children to be a part of something they consider important. However, "[c]hild therapists are divided on the appropriateness of taking children to the protest," with some saying that children younger than 14 might be traumatized by the impact and others saying that it's a great way to engage children in civic responsibility. And it's not the first protest that's seen children: "They were often present at civil rights marches, and more recently, boys and girls (complete with placards) have become a familiar presence at Tea Party events."

Of course, a lot of this decision is based on a larger parenting philosophy. Are children equal societal participants, or is that a position that is earned through age and experience? 

I tend to lean more toward the former. I think that it's important to treat my daughter with the same respect I would anyone else. At the same time, I recognize my responsibility to keep her safe and in suitable environments. Finally, I recognize that "respecting others" necessarily means keeping my daughter out of spaces where she doesn't belong, because it's disrespectful to the people who use those spaces to transform them into something else by bringing my child there.

So, what does this mean in practice? I very rarely get babysitters. As a full-time employee, I really cherish the time I spend with her on the weekends and evenings (not that stay-at-home-mom's don't cherish this time, but knowing that I'll be back in the office Monday morning definitely makes me focus on the finiteness of time). I've taken her to places that some people probably don't take their children (restaurants fairly late at night, my friends' house parties, urban street fairs, etc.) She's been around people who are drinking, talking about "adult" topics (politics and academics), and--yes--people who use "bad" words occasionally. 

At the same time, I try really hard not to take her places that are going to make other people uncomfortable. It took me a while to figure out which restaurants were okay (in my experience they all say "yes" if you ask outright if it's okay to bring a kid, but--once you get there--it's pretty obvious they lied to you). We like local restaurants and good food, so I'm not just going to limit myself to Applebee's for the next 18 years. I've started asking "Do you have high chairs?" and scanning websites for kid's menus.

And, on some level, I just trust my gut. My gut told me that Bourbon Street was too much--too much stimulus, too much unpredictability, too much noise. That's an individual decision that's based on my own parenting, comfort level, and child's personality, and it's a decision that I'm figuring out as I go along.
What about you? How do you decide where to take your kid(s)? Have you ever made a mistake? How do you handle it?

Photo 1: PetroleumJelliffe
Photo 2: planetc1

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guilt, Choice, and Happiness--More Complicated Than it Appears?

Having choices is a great thing, and if people were given the opportunity to make more lifestyle choices from a larger selection, they'd have a great chance at attaining happiness by finding what works for them and their families. Right? Doesn't that sound reasonable?

Well, it--like everything--is a little more complicated.

Working Mother surveyed over 3700 women about their motherhood choices. The results are in an article titled "What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report." The verdict? Many mothers report dissatisfaction with their choices.

  • 55% of at-home mothers want to be working.
  • 51% of working mothers feel guilty over not spending enough time with their kids. 
  • 55% of at-home moms worry they aren't making enough of a contribution to family income. 
  • 48% of working mothers and 42% percent of at-home mothers say they don't spend enough time taking care of themselves. 
  • 55% of working mothers and 44% of at-home mothers feel guilty that the house isn't clean enough. 
What does all of this guilt and grass-is-greener perspective mean?

It made me think about this 2007 Newsweek article "Why Money Doesn't Buy Happiness." The article reports studies showing that more money doesn't necessarily mean more happiness:
That's partly because in an expanding economy, in which former luxuries such as washing machines become necessities, the newly affluent don't feel the same joy in having a machine do the laundry that their grandparents, suddenly freed from washboards, did. They just take the Maytag for granted. "Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year," writes Gilbert, "but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year." Another reason is that an expanding paycheck, especially in an expanding economy, produces expanding aspirations and a sense that there is always one more cool thing out there that you absolutely have to have.
They equate some of this with choice:
The trouble is, choice is not all it's cracked up to be. Studies show that people like selecting from among maybe half a dozen kinds of pasta at the grocery store but find 27 choices overwhelming, leaving them chronically on edge that they could have chosen a better one than they did. And wants, which are nice to be able to afford, have a bad habit of becoming needs (iPod, anyone?), of which an advertising- and media-saturated culture create endless numbers. Satisfying needs brings less emotional well-being than satisfying wants. 
So, when there are too many choices, we have to constantly question whether we made the right one. Not to mention--if we are critical thinkers--we have to weigh all of those options, a mentally taxing job in and of itself. Then we have to look at the way people around us are making those choices and, depending on the trends, that can make things that used to seem optional look increasingly necessary. Doing what is necessary doesn't feel like an accomplishment because it has to happen. Doing what is optional can feel like an accomplishment--and thus make us happier--as long as we aren't thrown back into the loop of doubting our choice and wondering what might have been.

What does this have to do with motherhood choices? The Working Mothers study also shows that 49% of working mothers and 47% of at-home mothers consider themselves their own worst critics. We're being awfully hard on ourselves about the choices that we make. Also, many of the choices can seem like conflicting necessities. Notice that working mothers felt guilt about not spending time with their children (and spending time with your children is a necessity for parenting) but at-home moms felt guilt about not contributing to the family finances (which could also easily be viewed as necessity).

And if too many pastas overwhelms us and leaves us wondering if we made the right decision, what does that mean for the possible combinations of career, job, home, parenting style, relationship, etc. choices that we have to make. No matter how carefully discussed and research, there will always be options we didn't take and there will always be times we'll have to wonder how those other choices would have fit.

I'm not advocating against choices. In fact, I think that choices are progress, and I'd still rather that there be 27 pastas out there because you just never know when the perfect pasta might come along--because sometimes only gemelli will do.

So, if happiness depends on viewing our choices in a different light, we're going to have to stop thinking about all of the things we didn't pick while still keeping our options open enough to have a flexible life. Maybe the answer is to think of our choices as the selection of a group, and each choice is just one in a series of choices. I can't, for instance, drive myself crazy wondering what would have happened if I had stuck with biology (my original college major) and studied infectious diseases (one of my original career plans). I have made too many choices that have taken me too far away from that set of possibilities. At the same time, I can't become so fixated on a career path as an English professor at a four-year university (the typical path of someone getting the degree I'm getting) that I blind myself to other options that might fit my skills and interests in different ways. I still have opportunities within that series of choices to change and grow.

On a side note, I'm totally with all those women who feel guilty about housework--why is it that's one choice that's so hard to make and feel satisfied with it?

Photo: h-bomb

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rhetoric in Barbie's "I Can Be . . ." Campaign

Margot Magowan had a post at Reel Girl about the new Architect Barbie. In that post, she talked about the dearth of female architects (just 17% join the largest professional organization) and the need for stronger female architect role models. She even ended on a hopeful tone that Barbie might help close that gap. But then she attended a panel where female architects scoffed at Architect Barbie and suggests that little girls who aspire to become architects should be given building blocks, not dolls.

Their criticism brings to question a few things. First of all, what's the point of toys? Should toys hone particular skill sets based on natural inclinations? Should all toys be interactive and inventive? Should toys be gendered? Are they designed to impart messages and lessons that will carry forward into adulthood? Are they just fillers for idle time? Should we give our children toys based on our own interests and hobbies? Should we offer an equal array of toys and let our children choose? If so, what different sections make up that array?

Regardless of the (possibly endless) answers to those questions, it's clear that toy marketers have specific goals in mind for their toys (besides making money, which is--of course--a given). Architect Barbie is part of a larger Barbie campaign. A campaign that is very sophisticated and multi-faceted.

I first saw it when I stumbled upon this commercial:

Now, there are some things I really like about this commercial. First of all, it's hard not to get behind a "you can be anything you dream" message. It's part of the fabric of the American ethos, an inspirational call for individualism and determination. What's not to love? Secondly, I like the diversity in the cast both in terms of race and in style (several of the girls are wearing very "girly" clothing--like tutus and bright pink hues, but others are wearing plain polos and denim overalls (though, admittedly, still a lot of pink--but it is Barbie). The little girls each tell us their dreams--to go to the moon, dance with the royal ballet, nurse a puppy back to health, open a bakery, and teach the next generation. Curious, I went to the website promoted in the video, where I found a second commercial:

This commercial takes on the same theme (and the same tagline: "When I grow up I can be anything . . . and that's everything). We even have another little girl dressed in a pink ballet outfit dancing with her Barbie to start us off. The rest of the characters, however, are adults reminiscing on their dreams and how they got where they are. We see a piano player, pilot, painter, soccer player, singer, elementary teacher, firefighter, and veterinarian.

The second video shows more typically-male roles than the first one did (of the little girls, only the one who wanted to go to the moon breaks out of a nurturing or otherwise feminized role (dancer, nurse, baker, teacher). The second video includes a pilot, soccer player, and firefighter--all male-dominated fields. The second video also includes racial diversity and does a great job of showing the common theme of hope and dreams in all women.

I was a little dazzled by my reception of these commercials. They're edited well, send a good message, and seem pretty rhetorically sound. I'm not a Barbie fan, but maybe, just maybe, there's something to Barbie and her "125 careers and counting." Could she be promoting positive career aspirations in a new generation of women?

I kept looking around the website which includes live messages from girls (or, I guess, anyone who wants to send a message and pretend to be a little girl) explaining their dreams and reasons for those dreams.

There are some hopeful ones:
"I dream of becoming a Chemical Engineer because I love playing with chemicals."
"I dream of becoming a Baby Doctor because wow."
"I dream of becoming a Website Designer because I LOVE websites."
I don't want to be negative, but I can't help but notice that a lot of these messages fall into very stereotypical goals:
"I dream of becoming an Actor because I was in a play of cinderella!!!!:)"
"I dream of becoming a fashion designer because I love it!"
And there are many little girls who apparently dream of becoming Barbie herself:
 "I dream of becoming a barbie because I love dolls."
"I dream of becoming a barbie because she has inspired me to follow my dreams."
"I dream of becoming a barbie because I love barbie dolls."
So, while I want to be behind this campaign, I'm thinking back to the architects who say that playing with blocks is the best way to promote the skills needed to be an architect.

At the end of the day, all of Barbie's careers (of which there is a Wikipedia list) don't really focus on the skills needed for any of those careers. The focus for Barbie is in the accessories--the halter dress and platform heels for the babysitter, the pink blazer and black pumps for the news anchor. And while, yes, the women in the second commercial are definitely breaking the mold and setting themselves up as excellent role models in male-dominated fields, they did it without the help of Barbie. A look at the Barbies from the I Can Be . . . collection sold on Mattel's website is telling. Almost all of the roles are in female-dominated careers (babysitters, ballerinas, and teachers abound!) While there is a "doctor" there is also a "baby doctor" and "kid doctor," perhaps mirroring the fact that female doctors are much more likely to go into pediatrics or obstetrics/gynecology.

Look, I get it. I'm sure that these dolls available on the Mattel website are the ones that sell best, and I'm not knocking the company for trying to do what companies do--make a profit. I'm not even saying that there shouldn't be role models for little girls who want to be ballerinas or life guards. (Though, I am disturbed that the racial diversity they display in the commercials is nowhere to be seen in the dolls themselves. There are two different dolls--the typical white-skinned, blonde-haired Barbie and another Barbie who is a brunette with a slightly darker (but still very light) complexion). However, I feel like I need to judge this campaign on its own claims, and those claims are that it helps little girls who dream to become "anything" and that's "everything."

I like the message, but I'm not convinced that the toy actually carries it through. If little girls want to be computer engineers, they might be better served not by playing with a little plastic pink laptop, but actual computers. If they want to be race car drivers, they might be better served working on hand-eye coordination and reflex time than bouncing around Barbie in her skin-tight pink and blue jumpsuit.

Pushed to My Limits: Toddlers, Tiaras, and Judgment

I have a pretty firm rule about tolerating other people's decisions. I generally think that we're all just trying to get by the best that we can. While I welcome debate, I don't appreciate people snidely dismissing my carefully made choices, and I want to extend that same courtesy to other people. 

This is doubly true for other parents. The "mommy wars" are ridiculous. Tearing each other down over different parenting practices distracts from larger discussions and blocks overall progress. On top of that, it's just mean. I make decisions based on love, context, and research. I try to give everyone I meet the benefit of the doubt that they do, too. So if you use formula, work from home, work out of the home, baby wear, co-sleep, have two under two, eat sushi while pregnant, use cry-it-out, feed solids at 4 months, breastfeed, use crib bumpers, have an only child, (fill in the blank with whatever people are judging today), then I'm going to assume that decision is the right one for you. If it's not, I'm going to assume that you will seek out information on how to make a choice that fits better in the future. My advocacy is for options and opportunities, not overseeing individual decisions. 

So why, then, did reading this article from SPARK on Toddlers & Tiaras flip all of my judgment switches?

Of course, I'd heard of the show before. I gave it the same eye roll I give most of the shows in that category (Jon and Kate Plus 8, Little People Big World, The Half-Ton Man). They all just seem like modernized versions of circus sideshows, opportunities to gawk at people we perceive as "different" under the guise of entertainment. We get to fulfill our desire for spectacle while ignoring the guilt of exploitation--surely they wouldn't put themselves on stage if they didn't want to be viewed, right?

I hadn't watched the show, so I hadn't really thought too much of it. Then I read on the SPARK article that one woman had dressed her child up in the "hooker" costume from Pretty Woman and then defended that decision by saying:
I thought it was real cute to do Julia. She's 3, if she was ten I never would have considered this. But as young as she is, I thought it was very comical.
So, wait. She admits that sexualization of a little girl (say, a ten-year-old) is wrong, but that when it's with an even younger child (in this case, a toddler), it's "comical." 

The article goes on to talk about the fake tans, hair, teeth, and make-up. I knew these things (and the sexualization they implied) were happening on the show, and I watched and enjoyed the Little Miss Sunshine parody of it all.

Still, my non-judgment philosophy made me shy away from saying that these women (and a few men) were wrong to put their children in these shows. would never make that decision, but it's too easy to stand on a pedestal and tell others that they are raising their children wrong. So I shouldn't do it. Right? 

 Season 2 of Toddlers & Tiaras is on Netflix instant watch. I started watching. 

I made it 6 minutes and 47 seconds into Episode 1. I am literally sick to my stomach. 

The scene I stopped on is of a mother and daughter looking at some pictures from a previous competition as they prepare for an upcoming pageant. Both the mother and daughter are competing in the pageant, meaning that they'll be competing against one another for the grand prize. The mother points to a picture with a face of teasing disgust "Look how bowed your legs are!" The daughter (age 9) points to another picture "Look at your face!" Watching this interaction makes my heart ache. Here are a mother and daughter in a moment that seems to be legitimate bonding. They are friendly and laugh at one another. They spend a lot of time together. But their entire interaction is based on competition, appearance, and tearing one another down. 

In the other six minutes, I watched children disappear behind make-up, wigs, and glittery dresses. Little girls talked about how important a win was and which of their beauty crowns were their favorites. Moms talked about how they would be the "best pageant mom" and how important it was to win. 

I know that this is a small cross-section of the population, and I know that very few people would go through such lengths to enter their children into competitions, but what does the commercial success of this show say about our society? There are several articles teasing out some of the complexities and disturbing elements of the show (like this one from Vivian Diller on coaching children toward competition, or this one  condemning pageant moms for using their toddlers as living Barbie dolls, or this one by Leona Salazar who ends by calling the show "a pedophile's wet dream"). Like me, many of these writers tried to watch an episode in order to better critique the phenomenon and couldn't get through it or vowed to never watch again. 

So, my question is not whether Toddlers & Tiaras is okay--I feel pretty strongly that it's not. On a macro-level, the show adds to the sexualization of girls (some as young as infants), promotes stereotypical standards of beauty that are often racially charged, sends the message that beauty is superior to all other qualities, glorifies competition and egoism to the point that children and mothers are tearing down each other, and generally makes my skin crawl. 

No, my question is, how do we deal with the micro-level decisions of the people in this show? While I am a strong advocate for individual freedoms (especially the freedom of expression), I cannot help but judge these parents. Barring illegal/neglectful actions (like giving a child cocaine), I try to be non-judgmental of other parenting decisions. I normally try to see them through multiple perspectives, but there are not lenses that make this make sense to me. I hate to tell another mother that she's doing it wrong, but in this case, if the cheap, plastic crown and beaded sequin bikini fits . . . 

What do you think? How do you handle judgment when it creeps up? Are there times that it's justified?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Vacation Tips for those Who Do Too Much (An Illustrated Guide)

I used to have a hard time taking vacations. I was constantly thinking about the things I wasn't doing for work, for school, around the house, etc. While I should have been walking on the beach, I was thinking about the essays that needed to be graded. While I should have been dancing with my husband, I was checking email to make sure I didn't miss anything important from the office. While I should have been zoned out watching mindless television as we lounged around the hotel, I was thinking about the floors I'd need to vacuum and the groceries I'd need to buy when I got home.

That's no fun, and I had to stop.

I'm writing this in the early morning on my last day of a short fall vacation. The rest of my family is still asleep, and it has given me some time to think about my vacation evolution. Here, with some illustrative pictures of my lovely daughter, are some tips for anyone else who's having trouble letting go long enough to relax.

Enjoy the Ride

I used to think of the time it took to get to my vacation spot (plane, car, whatever) as wasted time. Here was this huge chunk of my "free time" that I had to spend doing nothing.

Learning to appreciate this time was an important part of enjoying vacations. Yes, I could fret about the 12-hour drive and think about all of the papers I could have graded in that time, but fretting doesn't get papers graded and it does make you miss the sights outside of the windows, the inside jokes you can create with your travel mates, and the moments of reflection you can have in a space where your focus is both restricted (less stimulus) and free (fewer requirements).

Try New Things
Again, in the interest of not "wasting" any time, I used to be reluctant to try new things on vacation. What if I didn't like them? Then all of that time was wasted! But, as you probably know, that is a ridiculous way to approach life. Even the things I've tried and hated have left me with a story and a memory.

Here's my daughter experiencing the beach for the first time. She tried lots of new things: holding sand, throwing sand, eating sand, burying feet, unburying feet . . .

Go Along for the Ride
Planning exhausts me. Feeling responsible for making every moment of the trip "productive" and fun for everyone is tiring and makes it no fun for me. I had to learn to let some of that go and just enjoy the trip, let someone else do some of the planning or--and this was tough for me--let no one do any planning at all. The day will still happen! It's amazing!

Here's my daughter going along for the ride while I do some of the heavy lifting.

Have Fun! (Even with the simple things)
We went to this park with huge interactive playgrounds and things to climb on. What did my daughter enjoy most? Playing with a bunch of tiny pumpkins. Seriously, she would have done this all day long. Vacation is a great time to remember the joy in simplicity.


Sometimes I need a reminder to take a break. I've started scheduling shorter, more frequent vacations so that I get those reminders. Living life at a break-neck pace only appears to get you there faster. And where's "there" anyway? Remember to rest. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Music for the Meltdown

I have a story.

When I entered college, I didn’t know what it was like to fail. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I had never had a job interview that didn’t end in a job (and I had a lot of jobs). I’d never been fired. I’d never failed a paper.

I expected things to change. I even sort of welcomed the idea that they would change, in a hard-to-explain sort of way. But then they didn’t.

I got one B in all of undergrad. I worked two or three jobs at a time. I was president of the English honor society.

I tell you these things not to brag. It wasn’t that I didn’t work for these things, but I never felt pushed. I just sort of did what had to be done. I didn’t really think about it.

So, I applied to graduate school because it seemed like the right way to go. I dutifully collected my letters of recommendation, wrote a vague personal statement, and sent off the applications to four different schools.

I didn’t panic when the first rejection came back--not on the outside. I shrugged and tossed the platitude-heavy letter into the trash. But on the inside, a switch had been flipped. The thought that I wouldn’t get in had never really occurred to me. Sure, I had contingency plans—I always have contingency plans. But I have plans for how to escape my car if it’s suddenly engulfed in flames (I know, I might have some issues), that doesn’t mean I’m expecting my car to explode.

The next letter came, and the envelope was thin. I’m not one for ceremony, so I just ripped it open and read what I was already afraid I would see: “extremely large applicant pool,” “many fine qualities,” “wish you the best of success.”

Right. Two out four. I don’t panic easy. I don’t mean by that what you think I mean.  I don’t panic easy because I panic hard. I start with internal arguments. Then I move onto placing blame—not on others, but on myself. Then I moved on to tearing myself to shreds from the very core: “You aren’t cut out for graduate school.” “You’re not really very smart, and someone finally figured it out.” “You don’t belong there; you didn’t even belong in college in the first place.” (Yes, there are semi-colons in my internal monologues--don't judge.)

After I ripped my own heart out, I started rationalizing. “It’s just two schools. You still have 50% of your applications out there. The first two schools came back fast because they were rejections. The other ones are taking so long because they’ll be acceptances. It’ll be okay.”

Then the third letter came. Small envelope.

There’s no polite way to put what happened next: I freaked the fuck out.

I continued to go through my day-to-day motions, but I was a mess. The fourth school had me hanging onto a wire for months. February passed. Then March. Graduation was a month away.

Looking back, I now know that I did everything wrong. I now help other students apply to graduate school as part of my job, and I so frequently think about just how wrong I did it. I applied to too few schools. I didn’t tailor my personal statement. I didn’t really know what I wanted to study.

But, at the time, all I could see was each “thanks, but no thanks” letter as a condemnation. A failure.

Time kept ticking away. My now-husband’s acceptance letters to law school came in, and I tried to balance the pride and excitement with the utter, sheer terror. Do we plan to move? To where? Do I keep holding out? Do I give up? And what do I do if I give up? Keep working at Wal-Mart (my college job)? Enroll somewhere to get my state teaching certification? Try my hand at being a (gulp) writer?

You see these series of questions and think, “That’s not so bad. You had options. You were doing okay.” But, no. I wasn’t. I went through those questions not once a day, not once an hour, but constantly. Every minute of every day. I was on the verge of losing my mind. I was so unprepared for this that I couldn’t even go through all the stages of panic. I was just stuck on this one, an endless hell of scrutiny and blame.

And that, my friends, is when I found the power of music for the meltdown. And seeing as how it is now October Meltdown, I wanted to share a list of my favorite meltdown songs, songs that I listen to when things seem like they’re going to fall apart, songs that either help me put it back together, help me let go, or just help me watch it fall.

“Let Go”- Frou Frou

This was the song that got me through the graduate school panic. At one point, I was listening to it on repeat as I ran on a treadmill in the gym. It was the first time in a month that I didn’t feel like puking.

So let go, let go/Oh well, what you waiting for/It’s all right/Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

Since the graduate school fiasco, I’ve found comfort in this song for many moments in my life when I felt like the reality I thought I knew was crumbling out from under me. And there is, it turns out, “beauty in the breakdown.” Every time the reality I thought I knew vanishes, I find something more interesting underneath. 

"You Think You Got It Bad" Lyfe Jennings

No guts, no glory/No pain, no story. . . You think the world owe you something, but it don't owe you nothing

Do you know what a meltdown means? It usually means that I have a lot on my plate, and the reason I have a lot on my plate is because I'm taking risks and trying to push myself onto greater things. I could avoid the meltdown, but that would mean staying static and never knowing what I could have become. And that is so not a trade off--this song helps me remember that.

"Warrior" The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The river it spoke to me/It told me I'm small/And I swallowed it down/If I make it at all/I'll make you want me

Sometimes the way through a meltdown is to stop whining and get the job done. That's not necessarily easy, but I'm not the first one, and maybe doing it will help make sure I'm not the last. When I need to suck it up, I listen to "Warrior."

Oh, and that fourth graduate school response? It was the big envelope.

So, there you have it. Three different approaches to dealing with a meltdown embodied in three different songs. What's your meltdown music? 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Children and TV: What's Your "Media Diet"

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released some new recommendations regarding infant sleep safety and television watching.

Time's Bonnie Rochman has a summary of the study, ultimately declaring:

studies show that young children can't cognitively comprehend what's being said and retain that information. Dozens of studies affirming that finding were what prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to update its policy statement on media use for kids under 2 on Tuesday. The upshot: there is no such thing as educational TV for this bunch.
Perhaps the fascinating thing, though, is how many parents report feeling the opposite:

In a survey, 90% of parents reported that their children under 2 watch some TV. And more than half of parents said they think educational television programming is important for their young child.
And, even parents who know that television watching is not optimal admit to "secondhand television" in their households: "Up to 60% of families report that the television is always or often on, even when no one is watching."

Studies are consistent: the best way to teach a young child language and social skills is through interaction. Children under 2 don't have the cognitive abilities to process information from television and they react to interactive play. Even once children are cognitively able to process the messages, limited media exposure has proven to be best. 

This has led the AAP to recommend that children under 2 watch no television and that those over 2 are limited to two hours of total screen exposure. 

Of course--and especially when we take in "secondhand" television--those recommendations don't match the realities of most American households. Rochman cites a pediatrician, Ari Brown, who has a compromise: "think about how you're going to thoughtfully introduce media to your kids and about your own media diet as well."

"Media diet," you say? What an interesting metaphor for dealing with media as a parent. 

See, before I got pregnant, I didn't have a very healthy diet myself (I'm talking about the food kind). It wasn't awful, but it wasn't great. I had already cut out the fast food from my college days, but I was still throwing together highly processed convenient dinners every night and grabbing nutritionally empty snacks over the course of busy days. When I got pregnant, I started thinking about the way my nutrition was effecting my child, and I slowly started changing my habits. All in all, we eat pretty healthfully now, and I'm hoping that my daughter will grow up thinking that this diet (mostly whole foods, no artificial sugars, minimal processing) is the norm. 

Now, onto my media diet. We don't have cable or satellite--we had it, but we hardly ever watched it. We do have Netflix and the regular network stations. We don't watch a lot of TV. My husband watches football and basketball. I put on shows from Netflix instant watch (at the moment, Storage Wars) when I'm folding clothes or cleaning. 

We watch a lot of movies, however, and my daughter--who still sleeps in random bouts, made even more random by her current teething--has had some "secondhand" exposure. 

In Clay Shirky's book about new media Here Comes Everybody, he discusses the low-quality, high-quantity content of the internet: "Surely it is as bad to gorge on junk as to starve?" 

There, again, is the media as food metaphor. 

We also see it in the concept of "eat your peas" journalism--the idea that people should watch/read the daily news because it is part of being a healthy, informed citizen. 

So, the "nutrition" of media has to do with content. And maybe Shirky's right; maybe it's better to starve than gorge on junk, but wouldn't the best option be a healthy selection?

And this report singles out media that's consumed on a screen, but that's not the only media our children interact with. My daughter has stacks of books. She has toys that send her narrative messages through their shape, color, and design. When I take her to daycare, there are pictures on the walls and windows. She hears music. 

While it is important to take notice of these television recommendations, it's equally important to look at our media diet as a whole.  With our family food diet, I'm hoping to give my daughter habits she can take forward as she grows. Her media diet should be no different, and that means that content is prime. Critical thinking, analysis, and careful selection are the "digestion" tools I hope to impart.

Photo Credit: jeering

Monday, October 17, 2011

Beyonce, Pregnancy, and Feminism

I've (surprisingly) got Beyonce on the brain. Her new video premiered, and in it she fronts a "boy band," complete with a progression through several braless, neck-plunging pantsuits.

She says of the video, "I always wanted to make a video and be part of a boy group myself. It was so much fun."

By positioning herself as the front "man" for a boy band, Beyonce does some interesting bending of gender roles. 

In the video she is clearly the center of attention, the focal point. She is also clearly the one in charge. At the end of the video--after a series of different sets/costumes--it cuts back to her in the simple black leotard with her back-up dancers in street clothes. She says "Cut" and walks off screen, looking satisfied but not particularly excited, avoiding eye contact with the camera as if it's presence isn't really that important, leaving her dance crew to celebrate their completed act. This cool, disconnected leadership role coupled with her pantsuits suggest a certain masculinity. 

But of course, those pantsuits are clinging (sometimes just barely) to a very present reminder of this frontman's femininity, her body. And while women's bodies are often objectified by others, Beyonce is famously in control of the way hers is displayed and consumed.

This brings me to my interest in Beyonce and feminism. 

See Beyonce had some words to say about feminism, or, rather, some words to say about not saying the  word "feminism":
Although many women today steer away from the word 'feminist', the Texan insists she's always been one, although she believes the movement needs a new name.
She explained: 'I don’t really feel that it’s necessary to define it. It’s just something that’s kind of natural for me, and I feel’s, like, what I live for.'I need to find a catchy new word for feminism, right? Like Bootylicious.'
Interesting that Beyonce's "catchy new word for feminism" is one that is directly connected to sexualization of the body. And it fits with the way that she has managed the sexualization of her own body, a posturing which she has seemed in control of even when she was very young.

Indeed, the video for "Bootylicious" suggests not a commodification of the body, but an self-image based in power and acceptance. Within the video, there are shots of a dressing room scene with various people-- the members of Destiny's Child, but also everyday people: men and women whose bodies might not pass the test of Hollywood, but are still portrayed here as "Bootylicious." Above all, the people are having fun.

I take issue with Beyonce's desire to circumvent the word feminism, but like Charing Ball's blog post on the Atlanta Post points out:
I don’t always agree with every statement by every self-proclaimed feminist or every proposal that has been floated in the name of feminism.  I have seen some very disgraceful attacks by self-proclaimed feminists, who label any woman that doesn’t agree with their brand of feminism as sister mule, a derogatory termed coined from Toni Morrison “Their Eyes Were Watching God” to describe a woman, who empathizes with the plight of men, particularly black men, as much as they do there own.  This has led me to believe that beneath that ‘I Am Woman’ pretense is a deep-seated resentment of women by women.
And, surely, there is some "resentment of women by women" inherent in the cruel, uncalled for rumors that Beyonce is faking her pregnancy. Technorati writes about a recent video where the dress Beyonce is wearing causes her baby bump to appear folded in on itself:
The media went into a feeding frenzy accusing her of wearing a prosthetic baby bump while a surrogate carried the baby. Others accused her of faking the pregnancy to boost sagging album sales, maintain her status as one of the biggest entertainers alive and/or keep her figure. Why anyone would accuse a woman who has consistently celebrated her curves of faking a pregnancy to maintain her figure is beyond me!
Even before this incident, the blogosphere was hopping with discussions of how ugly the baby would be and how she was just faking the pregnancy for publicity.

Sure. Beyonce is incredibly successful and, you know, haters gonna hate. But there's something particularly insidious about attacking a woman who has carefully crafted her persona based on the power of her own body over her pregnancy.

Pregnancy is a time when the power of the body is very complicated. In some ways, it is at its most powerful--it's creating a human being, after all! In other ways, it is at it's most vulnerable. Fears of losing the baby, of eating the wrong thing, hell, even of lying on the wrong side while sleeping plague many pregnant women who are just trying to ensure a safe delivery of a healthy baby. Then there's the way the body becomes public property. You are caressed by strangers in public. Your weight, breast size, and proportions are suddenly acceptable water cooler fodder. And these are things that happened to me. Me! Someone who rarely wears make-up and throws her hair in a pony tail. Imagine how much more magnified these deleterious effects are for someone who is already in the public eye--someone who has branded herself through her body.

While men are guilty of this transgression, I am frequently dumb-founded by the way women tear down other women when they are pregnant. This seems especially true when it's a woman of power, and Beyonce is one of the most powerful women in entertainment. Has setting herself up as "Bootylicious" created an increased risk of falling victim to pregnancy objectification?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ethical Consumption and Children's Media: A New Blog

I'm launching a new blog.

I'm taking a contemporary media class as part of my PhD coursework, and it's given me the opportunity to merge a lot of my interests into one project.

As a rhetoric and compositon scholar, I am interested in studying the ways that we use rhetoric to construct identities (for ourselves and others), especially when it comes to race and gender.

While these things were important to me before I became a mother, giving birth to a biracial little girl obviously personalized these issues in a new way. Suddenly the (often limiting) messages about race and gender jumped out from everywhere: commercials, movies, songs, books, toys, clothing, bedspreads.

The messages were particularly disturbing when they were embedded within media intended for children. It felt so unfair to me. The themes are so pervasive it started to feel inevitable that media exposure would be immediately connected with racism and sexism. So many princesses spent their whole lives pining for a husband. So many villains had darker complexions. What's an over-analytical parent to do?

Then, in the media class, I started doing some research on ethical consumption. You've probably heard of it. Ethical consumption is tied to the idea that consumers are like voters; every dollar we spend is a vote for the companies whose products we buy. By purchasing their products, we ultimately tell them to keep doing what they're doing because it's working.

We all make decisions about purchases, often based on cost and quality. The ethical consumer "consider[s] the consequences to others as part of their purchase decision process" (The Ethical Consumer). Ethical consumers also call for action based on these decisions. The most common type of action is a boycott, refusing (and asking other to refuse) to purchase products because of the actions of the company making them. The flip side of a boycott is a "buycott," seeking out (and asking others to seek out) products that are created by companies perceived to use ethical practices. Most commonly, these calls have to do with labor practices and production materials. A typical boycott would be requesting no one to buy clothing made at a sweatshop. A typical buycott would be requesting people to buy eggs from cage-free farms. 

What does this have to do with children's media? Well, rather than just locking my daughter in a sensory deprivation tank for the next 18 years (which sounds expensive and probably is not very sound parenting), I aim to turn my critical eye to ethically consume children's media. 

My primary goal is to choose media for my own daughter that I feel is appropriate, but--in doing so--I can also share my insights and open up dialogue about the media in general. Together, we can discuss what makes for positive identity narratives and what media products deserve consumption. 

Likewise, my goal is not to censor or ban media. I am fully aware that my daughter will (and needs to) be exposed to themes and perspectives that I don't share. But being aware of those messages ahead of time will leave me more equipped to discuss them and confront them. 

So, the long and the short of it is, I'm launching a new blog as a companion to this one. This blog--See Jane Juggling--will offer reviews of children's media and an interactive rating system. It will be part of my final project for the media class (accompanied by a critical analysis of the role of ethical consumption in media), but I plan to keep it going. I'll be watching, reading, and listening to this stuff anyway, and I'd love to share my insights with others and hear what you think as well.  

The (Other) F- Word

I had a lunch meeting with an undergraduate student who was considering graduate school the other day. We were chatting, sharing stories, having a good time. At some point, I mentioned this blog and, in doing so, labeled myself a feminist: "I write a blog about feminist mothering."

She immediately responded. "Yeah. I don't really consider myself a feminst feminist." She went on to talk about how much she enjoys the things her grandmother has taught her--things like cooking and sewing--and how her feminist friends say you can't do those things and be feminist.
It was sad to see this young woman--bright, ambitious, educated--so deliberately deny the label "feminist," but I couldn't argue with her logic. You shouldn't accept a label that asks you to reject other parts of yourself, and if that's what she feels like identifying as a feminist does, how can I ask her act otherwise?

It reminded me of this May NPR interview with Meghan Daum on Talk of the Nation in which Daum discusses Sarah Palin's self-identification as a feminist. Daum also tackled the issue in a LA Times article. In both, she gives the following definition of a feminist:
View men and women as equals; see your gender as neither an obstacle to success nor an excuse for failure; laugh at yourself occasionally; get out of bed in the morning; don't forget to vote.
The beauty of this definition is that it can apply to men and women, liberals and conservatives, rural and urban-dwellers, and a host of other opposing ends of different spectrums. This definition focuses on gender equality without attaching that equality to other, tangential, values.

In the NPR article, Daum explains that the word feminist "has become associated with almost aesthetics more than actual ideas."  

While that's certainly not true of everyone who promotes feminist ideals, I see her point. And it seems a conflict of aesthetics (and not ideals) that led my student to reject feminism. After all, what part of gender equality says it's not okay to sew? Not any part based in logic and certainly not any part that recognizes people as the multi-faceted and complex individuals they are. 

If we start defining feminism by picking out the qualities of its most vocal supporters, the word loses a lot of its meaning.

So, while I may disagree with Sarah Plain on. . . well, on pretty much everything, I can't use that disagreement to deny her access to the term "feminist" because "feminist" doesn't mean "women (or men) who agree with me." While, yes, labels need limits in order to have meaning, we need to make sure that we are setting those limits based on the ideas the label is actually meant to encompass and not just trying to keep people out of the clubhouse.

Also, I'm a little jealous of people who can sew.

Photo credit: tsuacctnt

Friday, October 14, 2011

The F-Word: Is it Okay for Kids to Swear?

I like words. I like the way they can shift meanings, convey emotion, create a pun. I like how they sound, how they feel in the mouth, how they can be whispered or shouted. I like finding the right words. When I was a kid, I used to read the dictionary (I know, I know--I wasn't a popular kid). I needed to know the words. I was amazed at the things there were words for. Interlocutrice. Elocutionist. Sesquipedalian.

I appreciate the right word at the right place, and that's why I'm not opposed to dropping a "fuck" into my sentences now and then. Sometimes it's the right word. Sometimes it's the right context.

In a free speech class, I once wrote an impassioned essay condemning Supreme Court decisions on free speech and profanity for their short-sightedness. I was just re-reading that essay and found myself nodding along with my past self's opinion on the FCC v. Pacifica case (involving George Carlin's "Filthy Words" monologue) (and, to be clear, I am not biased. I often tell my past self that she is not very bright, and clearly didn't know what she was talking about):
the Court once again failed to fully consider the contextual ramifications of the monologue. Here, the focus was almost entirely on the audience. The Court was so concerned that an impressionable child might hear vulgar reference to excretion that it ignored the authorial intention and textual reality of the words in question. By ignoring Carlin’s attempt to draw social attention to the colloquial uses of these phrases and thus de-stigmatize them, the Court paid no attention to the authorial leg of the rhetorical triangle. By failing to recognize that the words in question have more than one meaning, the Court grossly ignored the context of the text. Finally, even the Court’s examination of audience—the crux of the argument—was insufficient. As Justice Brennan pointed out in his dissent, the Court was out of touch with the fact that there are audience members who may interpret Carlin’s monologue in a different way.
So, to recap: I like words, including some profanity, and I relish the opportunity to use language expressively. I have defended the use of profanity in the past, and I have re-visited those ideas and still agree with them.

What's the problem? I had a baby, a baby who is quickly approaching speech milestones.

Posts like "My Kid gets His Potty Mouth from Me" on BlogHer and "Let My Kids Swear?" on Parenting take a look at this issue, but don't leave me feeling much better about it.

The first one recounts a mom's decision to clean up her own language so as not to influence her children's. She also says, "I've had the talk (many times over) with the kids about how grown-ups have words that they can use, but kids can't. I've even admitted that I shouldn't always use those words." And I understand the sentiment; it's a popular one, for sure. 

But I just don't agree. I don't think that I "shouldn't" use these words. There are times, in fact, when I fully believe that I should use these words. They are the right ones to get across this particular idea. I don't use them at work, in public settings, or around other people's kids, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a place for them. And if there's a time and a place for me to use those words, how am I supposed to tell my kid that there will never be a time and place for her to use them?

The second article takes a more pragmatic approach: "As I am not an idiot, I do know that my children swear outside the moat. 'Shitty old dog!' I heard my 6-year-old yell the other day (and it turned out that she was denotatively correct). I pretended I hadn't heard." The children aren't "allowed" to use profanity, but the mother knows that they will, and do. For her, it's more about respect--for her, for the rules, for each other. She also says that she sees swearing like a gateway drug:
So, it lacks creativity and civility, but it also blunts the senses to other forms of violence, verbal and otherwise. It leads to the snicker when the guy on the screen gets blown away, or even when the fat lady falls down on the "funny video" show. It opens the door to seeing something serious as trivial, something painful as silly. On the most basic level, it opens the door to verbal bullying, to "moron" and "retard."
And, again, I understand the idea, but I just don't agree. Language is complex, and it is the complex creation of our complex human minds, minds capable of discerning different rhetorical situations and navigating the language within them. There are words, for instance, that I never, ever use (like the n-word and the above-mentioned r-word). It's not that I think they should be banned (banning words ascribes them a fixed meaning (which no word really has) and gives too much power to those who wish to abuse them), but I am aware of my own rhetorical positioning and I have never been in a place where using those words is appropriate to the context or the message I aim to send. But if we're intelligent enough to figure out how to use our language in all its complexity, how can we just lump together an miniscule group of words and decide that these words are somehow outside of the scope of that complexity? Aren't we smarter than that?

In the end, I think I agree with (as I so often do) blue milk, who had this to say about her own child saying "fuck":
Lauca, it is ok to say that word at home with Mummy and Daddy but don’t say it anywhere else because some people don’t like that word and if they hear that word they feel upset.
I would feel like a hypocrite to tell my daughter that she can't use words. I don't believe in banning words, and I do believe that my daughter is a person--full and complete, though growing and learning. I don't want to be the parent with a obnoxious, socially off-cast child who swears like a sailor, but I don't think I will be. I think that loving language means loving its complexities, and I hope to help my daughter learn those, too.

Photo credit: Ani-Bee