Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yesterdays I Miss and Tomorrows I'll Love

I know that I promised, back in May, to be more present-focused and not give in to the just-you-waits or the you'll-wish-you-had-this-backs. For the most part, I've stuck to that promise and appreciated each stage of my little girl's growing up as it happens. But here, two days before she turns one year old, I'm feeling a the edge of sadness seeping into my optimism. So, in a moment that is both celebratory and bittersweet, I'd like to step outside of the present and take a moment to look back and forward.

The Things I'll Miss

  • The way it felt to lie as still as possible and watch her sleep curled up into a little ball on my chest 
  • The frustration that always gave way to stubborn determination as she was learning to produce her first sounds--that might be a touch of my headstrong ways shining through
  • The mohawk she had before the hair on the sides of her head grew in
Mohawk, baby!
  • Swaddling her up like a little burrito and praying that was enough to keep her asleep for two (please, Lord, just two, that's all I ask) hours
  • Her first giggles, which were unpredictable and contagious
  • Those little bitty onesies, especially the warm, fuzzy ones with rubber on the soles (cause six week olds do a lot of walking)
  • The feeling I had during those first few weeks home from the hospital, falling into a rhythm and becoming a family
Now, to balance out that wave of nostalgic sap, and to battle the fact that apparently years go by faster than I can blink, I've also started thinking about some of the things I'm looking forward to doing with her as she gets a little older. (I even made it the subject of my first Pinterest board, because--you know--I don't have enough social media platforms to procrastinate on). 
  • Playing dress-up! Not the frilly, princess, pink kind (unless she really wants to, sigh), but the kind with capes and masks and animal ears
  • Going to the best place in the world
  • Teaching her to cook (yeah, yeah, gender roles and whatnot--if I have a son someday, I'll teach him to cook, too)
  • Introducing her to my favorite books 
What about you? What do you miss? What's still to come? And how do you fight back when the years go by a little too quickly?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Amputated Belly Rolls: Visual Synecdoche in the 200-Pound Child Custody Case

In Ohio, a third-grade eight-year-old who weighs 200 pounds has been taken into state custody because his mother has been deemed too neglectful of his health.

This extreme move has sparked a lot of internet debate. Some criticize the foster care system as inadequate. Others point out the difficulty of healthy eating in today's society and the apparent hypocrisy of a government that declares pizza a vegetable but then blames parents for obese children. Still others point out that many children are obese and this decision could represent a slippery slope of states interfering with parenting decisions.

I agree that this decision raises some interesting (and frightening) questions about where a parent's responsibility ends and a state's responsibility begins. I also agree that blaming the parents' decisions fails to focus on larger cultural issues like access to healthy food. I don't know the child's individual situation, and it could be that this is a single-parent household, but I do find it frustrating that everyone is blaming his mother for being neglectful without much mention of his father's responsibility in his upbringing (whether he's present or not).

But what's most interesting to me about this story is the stock images that have been chosen to accompany the various blog posts and news reports.

From Time

But perhaps the clearest example is this one, from Digital Journal. . . 

Which is an edited flickr photo under a Creative Commons license. Here's the original, from colros:
Bench Press

Here they are, a series of amputated body parts, mostly stomachs and thighs. Look at them, gaze upon them, but never consider the human beings to which they are attached. 

Synecdoche is a rhetorical trope in which a whole is referred to by a part. For example, people may refer to hippies as "longhairs." The phrase "all hands on deck" is an example of synecdoche because it is not just "hands" that should appear, but the workers attached to them as well. It is also synecdoche--admittedly more vulgar--to refer to a man as a "dick" or a woman as a "cunt." 

This visual synecdoche serves the same purpose as the verbal kind. By focusing on a part of something rather than the whole, we trivialize the other aspects that make a person complete. When we refer to a hippy as a "longhair," we are ignoring the ideas and philosophies connected to that identity and instead turn the entire association into a physical oddity. When we refer to the ship workers as "hands," we downplay the fact that they are real people capable of exhaustion and feeling and instead focus on the value they bring to utility--via their hands. And the more vulgar examples are pretty self-evident. 

So what does it mean that, when we report on obesity or an obesity-related news story, we accomplish this same kind of desensitizing through an arguably more powerful medium? By removing the faces from these people, we dehumanize them. Look at the original Flickr photo of the man on the bench. Even with his face partially obscured from view, he is much more human, much more sympathetic, much more whole than the edited version. 

If you believe that the obesity epidemic is a real problem that needs to be solved, this kind of rhetorical positioning is not helping your cause. As many of the people responding to the Ohio custody case have mentioned, the causes are numerous and the solutions have to be holistic. Literally removing the humanity from the picture, reducing people to their fat, does nothing to encourage a multi-faceted or holistic discussion. This image tells us that the fat is all that matters. It's not the food; it's not the exercise; it's not the socioeconomic factors that determine access to food and exercise; it's not the education; it's not the genetic factors; it's not the unrealistic societal standards of beauty. It's fat. Fat that's the enemy. And this bombardment of amputated bellies also teaches us to view the world through that lens. It teaches us to look at people who are overweight and ignore everything but their size. 

If you believe that the discussion of the "obesity epidemic" itself is a prejudicial attack on people who are fat, then this visual synecdoche goes a long way toward supporting those claims. This is a dehumanizing and cruel portrayal of human beings that promotes desensitization and allows cruelty and ridicule with ease. 

Whatever you think about that little boy from Ohio, please remember, he is a person. He is not a floating belly. He is not a pair of thighs. He is a human being who feels and loves and probably misses his mother right now. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Motherhood, Feminism, and Self-Respect are Complicating My Views on Weight

As a few of my previous posts have hinted, I'm having a hard time unwrapping some complications of weight loss and body image. Though I can't say that I've arrived at an answer, I have at least found some other people who are concerned with the same issue and--with the help of their perspectives--feel prepared to better articulate the problem. 

Some background: just about every single woman (and most of the men) in my immediate and extended family struggle with their weight and suffer from diseases that have been correlated with weight: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, arterial blockage, sleep apnea. I grew up on pretty standard "down home" cooking, heavy in starches and butter, light on the veggies. I've listened to women I respect and love shame themselves and others over how they look. I've watched them starve themselves, drop fifty pounds, and gain back sixty. 

I have struggled with my weight since I was 14 or 15. I wasn't very active as an adolescent, and--though I did in some abstract way want to weigh less and look "better"--I didn't really put much effort into changing my habits or my appearance. When I was 17, however, I threw myself into losing weight with a (perhaps disturbing) vigor. It's a long story, but I was struggling with a lot of emotional issues and felt like I was losing control over everything--my body became the one thing I could control. I didn't starve myself, but I did subsist primarily on Lean Pockets and Special K cereal. I spent many afternoons running on a treadmill, and I dropped down to 120 pounds, far less than I've weighed at any other time before or since. In college, I cultivated healthier eating and exercise habits, both of which I maintained with varying degrees of success. I'd go through periods where I ate really well, but hardly worked out; times where I worked out regularly, but ate nothing but junk; and fleeting moments where I maintained the balance consistently. My weight would fluctuate about 15 pounds, but I was never thin. 

Motherhood has sharpened the complications present in this relationship between food, exercise, and my body--not because I need to lose the "baby weight." I actually weigh less now than I did when I got pregnant. No, I'm more attuned to this tangled mess because of two things: breastfeeding and having a daughter. Breastfeeding made me much more aware of what I put into my body. Food took on a different purpose; I wasn't just feeding myself, but my baby. If I decided to eat nothing but junk, I was making that decision for someone else, too. And if my baby deserved healthy food, then didn't my body deserve the same treatment? Knowing that I have a daughter who is going to get bombarded with messages about her looks and her worth and how the two are intertwined has placed a great sense of responsibility on my shoulders. It is important to me that my daughter sees me as a role model who respects her body, both by treating it right and by loving it for what it is. 

On top of these personal complications come the more general philosophical questions of how weight and body image are tied into feminism and patriarchy. I've heard (and listened to, honestly) the Fat Acceptance arguments that say attacks on obesity are attacks on people who are obese, that our culture is one full of fat hatred and intolerance, that this oppression is uncalled for and prejudicial. I agree with a lot of these claims, and--even when I don't agree with all of the details--I sympathize with the people who feel victimized by this oppression and would never want to feel like I was supporting a system that helped oppress them. 

So, it is with these complications that I approached the following articles, looking for some answers:

Can a Feminist Diet? Kjerstin Gruys asks this question as someone who identifies as a feminist, a recovered anorexic, and someone on a diet. She discusses her own struggles with the intersection between feminism and body image and talks about embracing the Health at Every Size philosophy, but not without problems: 
 I’m going to try to judge my “success” based on my behaviors, instead of my weight.  My goal is to consciously re-engage in healthful eating habits and joyful activity, and then accept my body size and shape wherever it settles.  As much as I’m still tempted to “get skinny,” I know I can live with this, and (more importantly) I know my body can live through it.But I still hope I lose some weight. 
I love the honesty here, and I think that it gets to the heart of my problem with the whole thing. If I tell you that I'm working out and eating healthier without any regard for the way my clothes fit or what the number on the scale says, I'm lying. Is that wrong? And--if it is wrong--does that motivation (however slight) negate the benefit of the healthy changes I'm making in my lifestyle?

Don't You Realize Fat is Unhealthy? Kate Harding of Shapely Prose lays out 10 principles that inform her fat acceptance philosophy. Here are some that seemed particularly important to me:

Obesity is not synonymous with "eating crap and not exercising":
There are thin people who eat crap and don’t exercise — and are thus putting their health at risk — and there are fat people who treat their bodies very well but remain fat. Really truly. 
7. Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Fat people are human beings.
8. Even fat people who are unhealthy still deserve dignity and respect. Still human beings. See how that works? 
I've seen a lot of comments about this topic that bring up health as not being a moral imperative.  And I agree. I don't think that I have the right to judge someone else's worth or beauty or anything else based on their health and habits. But does that mean that my own health can't be a moral imperative for me? Aren't my own eating and exercise habits not only my own to judge but also an important part of my discipline and self-care? If I choose to eat a certain way or exercise a certain amount with the goal of losing weight, am I participating in a system that oppresses other people? Even if I have no judgments about what those other people are doing?

An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement- Greta Christina crafts a letter to the fat positive movement that takes to task some of the short-comings of the general tone of the movement and suggests a better fat-positive manifesto. I haven't had anyone comment on this blog about the fat-positive movement with anything other than respect and sincerity (hopefully we can keep that up on this post, too!), but I have seen some conversations about fat-positivity get downright ugly in a hurry. Christina felt dismissed and attacked when she wanted to lose weight after a knee injury. She felt like her concerns over her quality of life weren't heard. Her entire post is worth a read, but here's an excerpt from her suggested manifesto:
We understand that there are health risks associated with being fat. There are health risks associated with many things -- things we have control over, such as playing rugby; things we have no control over, such as carrying the breast cancer gene; and things we have limited control over to differing degrees, such as where we live. We think it is reasonable for people to decide for themselves whether they are willing to live with these risks, or whether they want to take action to reduce those risks -- whether that's by quitting rugby, having a pre-emptive mastectomy, moving, or losing weight. Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.
The Quest for Healthy Body Image  This is from Erika Nicole Kendall's blog A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss. I just found this blog the other day, and I am loving the intelligence and perspective. In this particular post, Kendall (who promotes a very practical and health-based method to losing weight) discusses body image:

First of all, I don’t punish myself for not being where I want to be. I don’t look at myself as less than, because I have a goal that actually requires work to obtain (and maintain, at that) and it won’t happen overnight. I can be realistic about what I want to change without thinking there’s something wrong with who I am today… especially to the point where I use words like “hate” against myself. My body also isn’t enough to make me look at the person I am as being “a less than,” because there’s more to me than that. I’ll put forth the effort toward making me the person I desire to be – because I am worth that much – but I still embrace who I am as an amazing, loving and caring woman. It’s ok to have a goal with change in mind, but I’d never tell a little girl that she was unappealing or add to her insecurity because of it. And really, deep down inside, we are all just that fragile. It’s ok to admit that.

So, what have I learned from these perspectives? 

I think that we live in a world where we are simultaneously bombarded with airbrushed models who portray an unrealistic and unhealthy standard of physical beauty and messages that the obesity crisis is dooming us. I think that taking care of our bodies is important, but that we have the right (and the responsibility) to make the decisions about what that means for us. I think that, as a parent, I have the duty to be kind to my body so that my daughter might learn to be kind to hers. I think that eating real food and getting exercise makes me feel more alive and alert, and I should listen to that response. I think that my body is mine, and--while I should (and do) respect and appreciate its strength and abilities--I have the right to alter its appearance without being forced to feel like a representative for an entire subsection of the population. 

What do you think? 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Study Finds Hospitals Aren't Necessary for Low-Risk Births

A study paid for by Britain's department of health has found that mothers who are low-risk (healthy women who carried their babies to term) have little difference in birth complications whether they deliver in a hospital, home, a freestanding birth center, or a birth center within a hospital. The study is being used to promote women's choices in where they deliver:
More than 90 percent of pregnant women in England now give birth in a hospital. Some officials say the new study should prompt women to consider alternatives.
England's women already see midwives at rates far above American women with 60 percent of babies being delivered by midwives.  Most (90 percent) of births still take place in a hospital.

I'm glad to see a study showing that home births and other alternate birthing locations are safe and legitimate options for mothers. Personally, though, I'm interested in broadening the discussion of choice.

This time last year, I was days away from my due date and terrified of needing interventions in a birth that I really wanted to be as natural as possible. My daughter was measuring large (10 pounds 4 ounces) and my doctors (I had a main OB, but there were several doctors in her practice, and I often saw one of them at my appointments) were concerned. I'd had one brief (and not that high) blood pressure spike and had talked them out of an induction after hours of observation (and normal blood pressure) a week earlier. When I went into labor on my due date and delivered a 9 pound 0 ounce baby the next morning without medication, I was happy with the outcome, but frustrated that I'd had to fight to be able to move around during labor. I'd felt misled by a hospital tour and conversations with attendants that led me to believe they were natural-birth-friendly when they really weren't.

So when we talk about giving women more choices for where they give birth, we're talking about choices between birth cultures.

I truly feel most comfortable giving birth in a hospital. I'm not against medicine and medical advances. My own birth was via emergency c-section after my mom had labored for 36 hours. I very likely would not be here to write these words if she hadn't had access to those services. But that doesn't mean the culture of fear and emergency should be the default. Studies like this are great to help give women choices outside of the hospital, but they should help broaden choices inside of the hospital, too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Twilight Haters and Narrow Perspectives

Erika Christakis has a post that takes Twilight haters to task for their "bigotry." She says that Twilight detractors fall into two camps: dismissive (which she, well, dismisses) and deluded. It is the latter she takes umbrage with:

The deluded camp, conversely, takes Twilight far too seriously, faulting it for leading young girls to mistake fantasy for reality in dangerous, disempowering ways.
It makes you wonder if some people missed the memo that hundreds of millions of females, like their male counterparts, enjoy their fantasy life straight-up weird, sexy, and implausible.
Though I can't really call myself a Twilight "hater," as I certainly don't have enough at stake to invest hate into the franchise, I am certainly not a fan. I started to read one of the books when the English teacher part of me began to weep at the heavy-handed writing and cliches. A friend of mine who is a big fan had me watch the first movie, which I politely sat through, confused by its popularity. I found the plot not only implausible, but also contrived and a little insulting. And I wasn't even considering it a counterpart for pop culture's male blank check, which is how Christakis seems to view it:
Why is it that female fantasies are such a source of derision and fear? The male species is allowed all manner of violent, creepy, ludicrous and degrading movie tropes, and while we may not embrace them as high art, no one questions them seriously as entertainment, even when sometimes we probably should.
I take issue with the idea that we're supposed to read Bella as some sort of answer to female fantasy. To look at some of the reasons I take issue with this, you can see an analysis of the anti-feminist messages in the films from nuxi at FanPop, an article about a gender studies professor's views,  or this Guardian article.

All that aside, though, the thing I really take issue with is calling people who disagree with your own opinion on a film "bigots," especially if you don't answer any of their claims about the film except for dismissing them as "too serious." She then goes on to talk about the importance of themes like wedding jitters, pregnancy, and menstrual cycles. While it may be true that these are themes that resonate most strongly with a female audience, it does nothing to address the concerns about the messages the films send about relationships and women's places in them. 

Look, you can like something you "shouldn't" for the sake of entertainment. It happens. I, for instance, own and occasionally, far from the ears of my daughter, enjoy listening to a Dr. Dre album. There are decidedly anti-feminist lyrics in many of the songs, and I know that's wrong. From an entertainment standpoint, though, I still find myself drawn to it. I just have to come to terms with that. I can't accuse other people of misunderstanding or of promoting bigoted viewpoints. 

If you like Twilight, defend it in its own right or tackle the criticism that it's anti-feminist directly. Don't dismiss people who point out those messages as bigots because calling people bigots for pointing out stereotypes and sexism is, well, pretty anti-feminist. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Christmas With Kids: How Do You Handle the Holidays?

It shouldn't have surprised me. There's been a radio station playing Christmas songs for two weeks, the decorations have been up for nearly a month in department stores, and Santa already came for pictures at a local Toys R Us.

Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the story that many stores--including Best Buy, Toys R Us, and Target--have decided to start Black Friday sales at midnight (or even earlier) this year. They cite "consumer demand," but I find it hard to believe that people were writing in to demand they open their doors in the middle of the night.

Many employees are protesting the openings, claiming that it's unfair to them to not be able to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving. In order to open the store up at midnight, they'd have to sleep through their holiday festivities. Not to mention, they wouldn't be able to travel, and there will be plenty of customers who skip out on their own holiday traditions to wait in line.

I've never been much for Black Friday shopping, or really even the Christmas gift frenzy in general. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate getting and giving meaningful gifts. I think that it's a nice gesture that demonstrates love and caring. But more and more it feels like the entire "spirit of Christmas" (whatever that means to you, and I think it means a lot of things to a lot of people) has been getting boiled down into smaller and smaller nuggets, all of which neatly fit into shiny wrapped boxes.

I've never shopped during any of these crazy frenzies, but I did work at Wal-Mart during Black Friday while I was in undergrad. I watched the usually pleasant customers turn grumpy and the usually grumpy customers turn into malcontent misanthropes. There were elbows thrown, carts robbed, feelings hurt, and names called. I left my shift feeling worn out and sad. Merry Christmas.

As a childless adult, I used to just shake my head at this madness and call it a day, but now I wonder what messages my daughter will pick up about Christmas and Thanksgiving in particular and the meaning of gratitude and charity in general. How do I ensure that these consumer-driven fads don't drown out the opportunity to truly reflect on the things we appreciate? How do I help her see that there's more to the holidays than scoring the best deal or getting the best present?

Here are some ideas I've considered, but I'd love to hear more:

1) Include my daughter in Christmas shopping trips for friends and family and (once she gets a little older) talk about picking out a good gift based on things that person likes and what kind of things they enjoy. I'd also like to shop for a charitable cause (I thought about the Angel Tree, but since it's sponsored by the Salvation Army, and since the Salvation Army has such a horrible history of homophobia, I feel conflicted).

2) Focus on the quality of gifts we give her for Christmas rather than the quantity. I'd love to incorporate experiences into this so it's not just material things. Lifehacker suggests "experience coupons" if you're low on cash, but--besides from saving money--this strategy has the added benefit of promoting family togetherness (because a coupon for a zoo trip is something we can all share) and overall happiness (as studies have found experiences are more likely to make us happy than possessions).

Those are some ideas I'm kicking around. What do you do to keep the consumer frenzy from gobbling up your holiday spirit?

Friday, November 18, 2011

I Need Your Help!

Hey, have a second?

If so, I'd really, really appreciate it if you'd go over to my other blog See Jane Juggling and interact with some of the media reviews.

This blog is part of a project for one of my PhD classes, but I'm liking it so much that it might end up being part of my dissertation, and--either way--it's definitely something I want to keep up after the class ends.

The basic argument is that, as purchasers of media, we have the power to "vote with our wallets"and promote media with positive messages (buycott) and discourage consumption of media with negative messages (boycott). I'm particularly interested in the way gender and race are portrayed in children's media because children lack the cognitive maturity to analyze these messages completely and--because children consume more media than ever before--these messages are increasingly pervasive. Blogs offer us a space to analyze these media, enabling us to make more informed decisions, share ideas about how to talk about complexities with our children, and influence the production of positive media messages.

There will be a whole paper posted on the blog in the next month, but I really need some participants! The blog has an interactive rating system (explained along the right hand side). I would also love comments and discussion about the media reviewed. If you don't see anything reviewed that you are interested in, there is also a link to suggest other books, TV shows, movies, or toys.

You don't have to be a parent to play! You could replace "Would you let your child watch/read/listen, etc." with "future child" or "niece or nephew" or "friend's child" or whatever fits for you. Also, if you know anyone else who might be interested, please pass the site along.

Thank you so much for your help.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seeing the Future Through Spit-up Tinted Lenses: How Does Parenthood Shade Our Perspectives?

I saw Miss Representation this weekend, and it was very good. If you haven't heard about it yet, check out the trailer.

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

As I watched, one thing that stuck with me was the frame in which the documentary unfolds. It opens with an ultrasound picture and voiceover from writer/director/producer Jennifer Siebel Newsom explaining that finding out she was having a daughter prompted her to look at the world with a different perspective. That new perspective was the catalyst for the film. 

Another major element of the film was work with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In Miss Representation, Davis says that watching media with her children was her inspiration to start questioning the gender disparities and eventually form the institute. 

Then I thought back to reading Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a book that examines the rise of "girlie-girl" marketing and media portrayals. She, too, cited her own experience with her daughter as the motivation for the project. 

I started this blog as a way to focus my thoughts during my pregnancy. Recently, I launched my other blog--See Jane Juggling--as a space to analyze children's media for messages on race and gender. While race and gender were concerns of mine before having my daughter, it was her birth that sharpened that focus and made me more passionate about it. 

Why? How does parenthood inform our motivations and perspectives?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Weight Loss, Fat Joe, and Mariah Carey: A Rhetorical Analysis

I've written before about how I struggle with the rhetoric surrounding weight loss in America. On the one hand, I completely agree with people who talk about fat-shaming and the way that marketing and media portray unrealistic body types as a way to increase sales of products designed to get us to unattainable goals. I agree that we perpetuate stereotypes of people who are overweight as being lazy and selfish. I think that, especially for women, we equate thinness with beauty and beauty with worth, so little girls are dieting before they're even in middle school and a ridiculous amount of women have eating disorders. We should never judge people based on their size. For one thing, we don't know what other factors might be preventing someone from losing weight: physical disability, metabolic differences, etc. For another thing, your weight does not determine your worth, and people have the right to be any size they want.

I can't say that I completely understand the perspective of people who are victims of fat-shaming because (though I've struggled with my own weight and body image), I've never felt victimized by it myself. I don't, however, want to deny their responses or emotions when I say that I'm also conflicted about the narrative surrounding the obesity epidemic in America. But conflicted I remain.

Just do a Google News search for "obesity." It's a buzz word. It's everywhere. And the statistics can be pretty shocking. According to the CDC, 1 in 3 adults is obese and medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion. The health problems linked to obesity are numerous and can effect longevity, quality of life, and mobility.

The problem of the rhetoric of weight loss was summed up nicely this week with two high-profile cases: Mariah Carey and Fat Joe.

Mariah Carey by David Shankbone

An Open Letter to the Direct TV "Recovery" Team

Dear "Recovery" Team,

It's my fault. I can't hang up on people. Maybe it's because I worked for the fundraising telethon in undergrad. Maybe it's because I worked at the Wal-Mart service desk. Maybe it's because I'm just a weak fool, but I can't do it. So, when I pick up my phone and hear "Hi, I'm calling from Direct TV and we see that you used to be a valuable customer and you're on our preferred list and I'm calling to see how we can bring you back"(all without pause, so that I can't shut you down midway)--I should just hang up, but I don't.

I try to tell you no, but you're well trained. You just won't stop talking long enough for me to get in that one syllable. Or you ignore it. Whatever. So I stare off into space as you give me the same spiel you've given me at least once a month, every month, since January when I paid good money to break my contract and cancel my service with you.

You use lots of exciting-sounding words. "Choice Extra" "Preferred" "Special" I can get a deal! All I have to do is pay you money, and you'll give me channels! It's cheap, oh so cheap.

"For how long?" I ask, sarcastically, but you are programmed not to pick up on sarcasm.

"This price is locked in for 12 whole months!" You say this like you are sincerely excited. Maybe this is as far as you've ever gotten into your script without being hung up on.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Once a Porn Star, Always a Porn Star?

Over at BlogHer, avflox has a post about Sasha Grey's volunteer experiences reading to children: "Would You Let a Former Porn Star Read to Your Kids?"

Sasha Grey is a retired porn actress who is reportedly looking for more mainstream acting roles. She is also volunteering with Read Across America to read to children in order to promote literacy, and some parents aren't happy with it. 

I agree with avflox, who says in her post that there's something wrong with denying this woman the opportunity to volunteer for a cause she thinks is important. Grey doesn't identify herself to the children as a former porn actress. She doesn't dress inappropriately or talk about sexually-charged topics. She comes in, she sits down, she reads. 

Grey's own response to the controversy illuminates the part that I find most interesting in all of this: the limits of labeling:
I am an actor. I am an artist. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a partner. I have a past that some people may not agree with, but it does not define who I am.
Grey points out just a few of the labels that she wears. She officially retired from porn in April, and yet that label--"porn star"--is the one that sticks. Looking up news stories on the subject, most of the headlines identify her that way:
Chicago Sun Times: Sasha Grey, the porn star who read at school, yearns to go mainstream
New York Daily News: Porn star Sasha Grey reads to first-graders in elementary school classroom
Reuters: Porn Star Sasha Grey: I'll Read to Your Kids if I Want!
Business Insider: Porn Star Sasha Grey Defends Reading to Elementary School Kids
Several other articles refer to her as "former porn star" or "ex-porn star," which--while still limiting her to that role--is at least accurate (and understandable since that former role is the source of the news story in the first place.)

I once sold knives door-to-door for a summer. What if every thing I did from here on out began with "Knife-saleswoman"? "Knife-saleswoman Teaches College Students Composition," "Knife-saleswoman Questions Gender in Disney Princesses."

While, yes, the things we do have an impact on who we are, no one aspect of our lives should become our entire identity. And, acting in porn is a legal activity. If Grey were still an active porn actress who wanted to read to children, I would be fine with it as long as her actions as a volunteer conform to the standards set for that role. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that being a porn actress is so morally reprehensible that--when you are acting in that role--the depravity makes you unfit for any other activities. If you truly believe that, wouldn't you want to see someone stop doing it (as Grey has) and inhabit a new primary identity (as Grey seems to be doing)? Wouldn't forcing her forever into a box that you think is morally repugnant be just about the most counteractive thing you could do?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The Curious (Links)

The Good- (things that made me smile)

The Bad- (things that made me sad)

  • U.S. Senate candidate Clark Durant thinks the income gap "should be wider."

The Curious- (things that made me think)

  • In Defense of the Spice Girls by Sady at Rookie- A look at how many people complained about the Spice Girls message at the time, but how it might actually have been pretty pro-feminist after all

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Things That Aren't for Women: A Round-up of Commercials that Exclude

Because I mostly watch Netflix streaming and movies, I rarely see commercials. I had heard about the Dr. Pepper 10 commercial, but I saw the actual thing on television for the first time a few days ago. This is the one I saw:

I know, as a feminist, I'm supposed to feel insulted. And I do see that it is insulting, but I mostly find it hilarious. I mean, does this really sell soda? What is a "manly" calorie? Who takes the time to pour their soda on ice when they're in a high speed chase? And--more to the point--what cultural elements have to be in place for an ad campaign to think this is a good idea? 

I teach an ad section in my rhetoric classes every semester. We talk about how you have to target a particular audience in order to be effective. So, I understand how we got here. But there's a world of difference between "targeting" a particular audience and "excluding" everyone else. And if your goal is to make money, you should probably take some time to figure out how that difference works. 

I decided to look for some more "men only" or gender-based exclusion commercials. And it is in this context that I began to understand how Dr Pepper could have thought this was acceptable. It's sort of a natural progression in this disturbing (and pretty stupid) trajectory. 

The Burger King Texas Double Whopper-- "Eat Like a Man, Man"

"I will eat this meat, til my innie turns into an outie/I am starved/I am incorrigible"

Because women, apparently, do not get hungry. And men are so upset by the thought of quiche that they will march in the streets to protest it. Seriously, that's the message. To sell a hamburger.

I do give them a little credit for using the word "incorrigible," though.

Docker's "I Wear No Pants"

A field of pantless men sing about not wearing pants as they march. The screen cuts to a pair of Docker's and a voiceover says "Calling all men. It's time to wear the pants." Cause women don't get to. When we walk through fields without clothes on, it's not funny, it's "sexy."

Pepsi Max- "The First Diet Cola for Men"

This commercial shows men doing a series of stupidly painful things: dropping bowling balls on one another's heads, smashing each other in the face with golf clubs, etc. "Men can take anything, except the taste of diet cola. . . until now." Thank God that Pepsi has an answer: "the first diet cola, for men." I know that Dr. Pepper 10's commercial is a little more egregious, but not by much, and it's probably a direct response to this campaign.

With a history of commercials like these, the Dr. Pepper 10 commercial doesn't seem so out of place. I guess that's even sadder. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Katy Perry's "The One That Got Away": Is Growing Up Always Hard to Do?

Katy Perry premiered a new video today for her song "The One That Got Away."

The video fits the melodrama of the song, a tune about reminiscence of youthful love and more carefree days. 

"Used to steal your parent's liquor/And climb to the roof/Talk about our future/Like we had a clue/Never planned that one day I'd be losing you"

The video shows an old lady wandering around her gigantic house, ignoring her husband, and pining for the days of yesteryear. Most of the video is flashbacks of the life she misses: days her and her lover spent taking Polaroids, crashing parties, giving each other tattoos, and painting. In the end, the two get into an argument, he speeds off, and he wrecks the car, ending his life and any chance they'd have of making up--dooming her to always wonder "what if."

The video made me think of this Cracked article by Daniel O'Brien: 4 Pieces of Relationship Advice Movies Need to Stop Giving.

Numbers 2 and 1 on the list counter one another: "Being in a Healthy Relationship Means Not Changing Yourself at All" and "Being in a Healthy Relationship Means Changing Yourself Completely." O'Brien accuses 500 Days of Summer and How I Met Your Mother of the first offense and Knocked Up of the second. Basically, some movies suggest that you have to wait it out and find someone who will take you exactly as you are even if that's "unreliable, emotionally unavailable, and romantically disconnected" and others suggest that you have to give up "everything else I've ever cultivated throughout my entire life that has contributed to my personality." The answer, O'Brien suggests, is probably somewhere in the middle. 

And I think Perry's song/video touches upon a similar issue. 

The old woman in the video is mourning the loss of "the one that got away" and re-imagining moments with an old boyfriend. That boyfriend has become a stand in for everything else that she's given up from her past. She's now a wealthy woman whose clothes, house, and demeanor suggest that she's pretty serious and conservative. Her memories all have her young, carefree, in run-down apartments, and acting wild without caring about the consequences. The "one that got away" isn't really the man; it's the person she was before she became an adult with adult responsibilities. It's particularly difficult for her to separate, though, because the man died at that moment--forever young and carefree. She doesn't get to see him grow up and get saddled with a mortgage. He's painting on the walls and drinking other people's champagne for all eternity. It's like the question of whether Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or any other artist who died young would have been able to maintain their allure into old age. It's a hypothetical we'll never have to test because they're trapped in that moment forever. 

All that to say that--while I like O'Brien's article about what films get wrong--I think his judgment of Knocked Up is a little off. There's a difference between "changing everything you are" and "growing up." 

I had a boyfriend in high school who used to sneak me pints of Mad Dog (we were young and broke, don't judge). We'd drink them, stay awake for 40 hours, lie on a trampoline all night long looking at stars, write goofy songs, and prank call my neighbors. 

Did I fundamentally change who I am because I don't do those things anymore? Well, I guess yes if getting a job and figuring out that Mad Dog is about the most disgusting thing you can drink risk fundamental character traits. But if what made you who you are is unemployment and an affinity for cheap wine, then I think there's something more important to worry about at stake. 

In Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl's character doesn't tell Seth Rogen's character that he has to change. In fact, she tells him that he shouldn't have to change, but she also recognizes that she can't raise a child with someone who thinks that living off of the thousand bucks he has left from an accident settlement and trying to get his lazy internet pseduo-porn company to take off is a future. I think the final scene of Knocked Up says the opposite. They're driving home from the hospital to the new apartment. It's not a fancy apartment; they're joking about how they'll have to choose which gang to join so they can fit into their new neighborhood. They haven't got it all figured out, but they've recognized they need give and take and a way to cover their new responsibilities. 

That's not nearly as fun as the life Rogen's character had before: getting high all day, watching movies for nudity, and farting into his friend's pillows. But do you really want to do that forever?

Movies, music videos, songs--pop culture is full of reminiscence of childhood because it's a universal commonality. Times will never be as good as they once were, our adult selves say. Look at all that time we had on our hands, no bills to pay, life was simple. But do you know what I spent all those hours on the trampoline talking about? What life would be like when I was out on my own, my future career, my goals. 

Perry's video gives us a taste of what it might look like if tragedy struck and we lost the organic growth from one stage to the next. When the boyfriend dies in that car accident, he becomes a legend, an undying token of youth. They don't get to grow up, open checking accounts together, argue over how to load the dishwasher, and figure out that love doesn't have to be an adrenaline-fueled act of counter-culture to be real. 

And I, for one, am glad I got the chance to learn those lessons. Mad Dog tastes really, really bad. 

Adventures in Food: My First CSA Share!

Months and months ago, I got all excited after reading about CSA memberships, found one in my area, and signed up. I got wait-listed and assumed I wouldn't hear back from them until next year when they had new membership openings. But then I got an email two weeks ago saying they had winter shares open. So last night I ventured out to pick up my first CSA share.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and the basic idea is that local farms make some of their food available as public "shares." For my local CSA, you sign up, pay up front for several weeks worth of food, and then each week (or every two weeks in my case, as I purchased a half-share) you pick up a bag of locally-produced groceries. The groceries vary by season and depend on what was brought into the pick-up site for that week. If you want to read more about CSAs or see if there's one in your area, you can visit this website from Local Harvest.

So, what did I get?

Cream cheese, sweet peppers, eggs, lettuce, some other kind of lettuce, cabbage, acorn squash, heirloom tomatoes, bagels, sunroot(?), granola, peach preserves, and bratwurst burgers.

It was a pleasant experience--friendly people, lots of extra local produce I can purchase at the pick-up site, and a well-organized pick-up system.

It's going to be a challenge to my grocery routine, but that's part of the reason I wanted to sign up in the first place. I only know what I'm going to get a day in advance, and--in some cases--I have no idea what to do with some of the foods. For instance, I have never even heard of sunroot, which the nice man at the pick-up site told me to sauté with garlic. So I guess we'll be experimenting.

I also think it will force me to eat a little healthier. We've been doing pretty good with the healthy foods, but seeing all of those varieties of lettuce sitting on my refrigerator shelves will force me to figure out ways to include them in my meals.

And bratwurst burgers are delicious!

Is Working from Home More Stressful than the Office?

A study by Tim Golden finds that working from home may be more stressful than going to the office.

I don't work from home for my job job, but I do a lot of work from home as a graduate student, so I feel like I have a little perspective on some of the topics in this discussion.

Golden's study found that work-life balance was particularly precarious for those who work from home:

The more work and family demands conflicted, the more people suffered from exhaustion.
Those with already high levels of work-family conflicts suffered higher exhaustion when they spent extensive time working from home.
Julie Bindel at the Guardian took a look at how this is particularly true for women:
There is no question that men working from home are afforded more respect than their female counterparts. It would be unlikely that dad would be interrupted by his partner to ask him what is for dinner. Women working from home are often thought to be earning "pin money" or only in part-time employment.
A lot of the conversations focus on the need for separate spheres, with some people going so far as to literally get dressed for work, walk out of their house, and walk back into it to signal that they've entered a new space. The study suggests a need for at least a mental separation between work and home life, and a physical separation is one way to help ensure that the mental divide gets put into place.

But is it the only way? I work eight hours a day from an office. I work many hours a week from home. I  think there are tasks suited for one more than the other.

Things I feel most comfortable doing at the office: meeting students, making phone calls, and having planning meetings with colleagues.

Things I feel most comfortable (or at least as comfortable) doing at home: emails, grading papers, reading, making presentations, planning individual projects.

Looking at these lists, the problem for me is one of code-switching. We all code switch between home and work, but if we work at home, there are some things that are harder to transition between. If I met colleagues and students in my house, for instance, I would have to code-switch not only my clothes, speech, and demeanor, but also the presentation of my house. It would be a lot of work and it would be hard to switch it back to "normal" when the work part was done.

But for things that don't require other people, that's less of an issue.

I know that there are studies saying multitasking doesn't work, that our brains can't handle more than one task at a time, and that we should focus on one task intensely before moving to the next one, but my personal experience doesn't match that. Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe it's a literal transformation of the way our brains work because of new media.

Whatever it is, I know that I can accomplish a lot, and I know that I do it by switching through those tasks based on contextual analysis of what's going on around me.

This week, I had to read about 400 pages in two days. This was a lot to fit in since I also had to do all of my household/child care duties, work, and teach. I could not focus single-mindedly on that task. If I had tried, it would not have gotten done. I had to read whenever I could fit it in. That meant reading in the kitchen while the meat browned on the grill. That meant reading in my classroom while I waited for the class to start. That meant reading on my lunch break while I waited in line to get food.

And do you know what? I don't think it hurt my comprehension. I was able to talk about those books intelligently. I was able to write notes about what I thought. And in a few weeks, I'll be able to find passages in them when I write my research paper.

This is true for a lot of other tasks I do as well. I grade papers a few at a time when I get some downtime. I talk to my husband while I cook dinner and unload the dishwasher. I answer emails as they come up so that  I don't get bogged down, even if that means taking a pause from the presentation I'm planning.

I'm not saying this is the optimal way to work, but it is the optimal way for me to work.

Now, this style of work means I don't have clear divides between home space and work space. Work space becomes home space when I'm making grocery lists during my breaks. Home space becomes work space when I'm grading papers on the couch.

But, what I lack in physical divide, I make up for in mental divide. I do focus my attention on the task at hand, and I am conscious of making sure that I prioritize tasks across the board. I can't put all of my work stuff on top because there is home stuff that is equally (or more) important. There is one master list (sometimes mental, sometimes physically written down), and I pull tasks from it as that list requires.

I'm not dismissing the conclusions of this study, because I do think that having constantly overlapping spheres can be exhausting, but I do wonder about what we do with that information? Is there a way that we can approach our work differently?

How do you work? From home? In an office? Some combination? What do you think it does to your work-life balance?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Joe Paterno, Ashton Kutcher, and Some Hope in the Distance

I have been disgusted by the Penn State riots over Joe Paterno's firing. Judging from some of the comments I saw in my Facebook feed, some of the people reading this might not share my disgust. While I think you are entitled to your opinion, I do not understand it.

The man covered up a rape, and by not reporting what he knew--which was part of his job, but also part of being a decent human being--he allowed rape to continue. I would say more on this, but plenty of people have already done a great job of it. Not to mention, looking at those pictures of Penn State students overturning media vans as they riot over the decision depresses the hell out of me and makes me sad for humanity. So I'm going to look for a more hopeful perspective instead.

And what do you know, here's Ashton Kutcher, ready to provide me with an opportunity.

See, Ashton Kutcher shared the perspective (at least the general basis of the idea) with those Penn State rioters. And, because Ashton Kutcher won the Twitter war, he had a really powerful tool at his disposal. Kutcher didn't need to overturn vans. He could simply sit down and type a few words.

Kutcher--who uses his celebrity status (and his Twitter account) to campaign against sex trafficking--immediately faced the ire of an enraged Twitter-verse. So much so that he has announced he will hand over control of his Twitter account to Katalyst Media. 

Clearly--like Paterno himself--if Kutcher had been able to see the backlash that would result from his actions, he probably would have done something differently. But there's a difference between citing "hindsight" because you've actually learned something over time and using it to wish you'd never been caught. In this case, both Paterno and Kutcher had all of the information (or at least the opportunity to get all of the information--if Kutcher decided to tweet this without reading a news story, that's his fault). Paterno made a choice not to inform the authorities about the rape. Kutcher made a choice to voice this opinion. Paterno now faces the consequences of his decision: dismissal from his job. Kutcher now faces the consequences of his: backlash over the very social media site that helped him become popular in the first place. 

For both men, the severity of the consequences are tied up in their positions of power. Paterno's conduct (while it still would have been equally damaging) would not have been the source of public attention if he'd been, say, a janitor who had knowledge about the rape. It is precisely because of his power and privilege that his actions are in the spotlight. And there's not much different between what Ashton Kutcher said and what some of my acquaintances said on Facebook, but my acquaintances don't have 8 million Twitter followers. Kutcher used this platform to build up his celebrity, and now he is blaming that very success for the reaction he faces. 

On his blog, Kutcher posted this: 
It seems that today that twitter has grown into a mass publishing platform, where ones tweets quickly become news that is broadcast around the world and misinformation becomes volatile fodder for critics.
He goes on to say that he didn't know why Paterno was fired, and he assumed it was because of "poor performance as an aging coach." While I'm obviously not inside of Kutcher's head, I find that hard to believe. And even if it's true, it doesn't excuse not taking the time to read an article or finish listening to the newscast before spouting off about it to 8 million people on Twitter.

As Gizmodo explains (with some colorful language):
You weren't "spreading gossip or rumors" through your Twitter feed. There was no "misinformation." You were voicing an opinion that turned out to be unpopular. Now, you may have been ill-informed about why Paterno was out, but you weren't spreading misinformation. He really was gone. You just said something stupid and got shit all over in response. And so now you want to take your ball and go home? It's an easy and cowardly thing to do.
Here's the hope part I promised I'd get to.

Kutcher is facing backlash because power and privilege do not have the protective isolation that they once did. Ashton Kutcher faces direct feedback from millions of people across the world. I am appalled by the fact that these rapes were covered up and ignored. I am mournful for the pain and psychological turmoil those boys faced.

And I am hopeful that there are plenty of people in the world who aren't going to nod complacently just because someone with power tells them they should. When the Joe Paternos of the world come forward and self-assuredly announce their retirement without ever acknowledging the wrong they've done, when the Ashton Kutchers of the world shoot off quick remarks because they think their fan base is full of mindless drones, when people with power think that they are buffered from the raw emotion and very real consequences of the world they act in, we can do something about it.

And that is why, even as I stare in confusion at those images of rioters, I still have some hope.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Things I've Learned from Driving the Crappiest (No, Really) Cars Ever

My little brother will be 16 in a matter of days. Like most almost-16-year-olds, he's fixated on getting a car and all of the metaphorical freedoms that it brings. My mom is wondering how she can help him out in the purchase of said freedoms, and it made me think back to my own car ownership history. See, I am on my tenth car.

I know what you're thinking. I must have been hell on wheels, carelessly crashing car after car. But that's not the case. In fact--excepting the one time I tried to teach myself to drive a stick shift without even knowing that you had to have the clutch in to start it and drove head-on into my mom's lawnmower (which did no damage)--I've never wrecked a car. I was just poor.

It made me wonder. What would my little brother be missing out on if he didn't have to go through the experiences I did. So here, catalogued through the lenses of some of the cars I've loved to hate, are the lessons I learned through driving some of the worst monstrosities you can imagine.

The Escort
My first car was a gift on my sixteenth birthday. Despite the cliche image that might conjure up, this car was anything but typical. It was an '88 Ford Escort. White. Boxy. Ugly even when it was new. And it was definitely not new. A friend of the family paid $200 for it, and I was grateful.

I was still grateful, underneath it all, as I laid on my back in the gravel, holding a metal rod and flailing it in the general area where I thought a starter might lurk. Once I'd knocked the underside of the car around what felt like enough, I got back in and tried the ignition again. Success! Oh, but now the oil light was on. Of course it was! It had been more than six hours since I had last watched the greedy beast drink down a quart with its familiar glug, glug, glug. So, I hopped back out, reached behind the driver's seat into the store of the cheapest oil I could find, and grabbed the twisted coat hanger from the passenger seat. After maneuvering the hanger into the spot where the hood latch used to be, the hood finally pops.

You might think, from this description, that the "lesson" from this car would be resourcefulness, but I learned something even more important from this gem of a ride: humility.

You see, this car was "losing compression," a mechanic term that simply meant "too expensive to fix" and "frustrating as hell to drive." The car maxed out at 45 mph, making me lots of new friends on the interstate, I'm sure. But that embarrassment was nothing compared to the hills. In order to get to work, I had to drive up two very big hills. At one point--near the end--the car ground down to an excruciating 5 mph before peaking over the top and picking up speed. The people behind me, of course, had no idea that my car just simply couldn't go. They thought I was messing with them. Amid the honks, flying middle fingers, and glares, I learned to smile sheepishly and hope for the best. I gave modest shrugs and half-hearted smiles. All that theoretical teenage "freedom" didn't seem so free.

The Fifth Avenue
The Escort didn't last. A friend drove behind me and literally pushed it up the hill--nose to back bumper--so I could take it to the junkyard. It was time for bigger things--much, much bigger.

I had been squirreling away crumpled fives and tens from my paycheck, hidden in a Tylenol Flu box in my bedroom dresser. The money grew, and I eventually had enough to purchase a car for myself. It was a $200 1985 Chrysler Fifth Avenue. And it was a luxurious car filled with all of the latest features--in 1985.

In 2001, however, it was a tank with a hole in the trunk, motorized windows that didn't work, no interior lights, and a bottomless gas tank.

This car taught me to be observant.

Since there were no interior lights, I never knew how fast I was going once the sun went down. I lived in the middle of nowhere, and streetlights were few and far between--unlike the state troopers, which were bored and numerous. My most frequented stretch of highway had exactly one streetlight for twenty miles--and it happened to be just a few yards into my journey. I would turn onto the highway and stomp on the gas, attempting to hit the speed limit before I got to the light. If I was able to accomplish this feat, I could use the light to check the speed and then try to maintain it through observation the rest of the drive. I learned to pay attention to the curves in the road, the hum of the motor, the vibrations of the steering wheel. I also learned that when you pay for gas in pennies, the store clerks alternate between sympathetic and angry.

The Shadow
The Fifth Avenue didn't die. As far as I could tell, it would never die. I sold it and like to imagine that it's still out there somewhere. My next purchase was a full 50% more expensive, so clearly a step up. This $300 '90 Dodge Shadow was a beauty. Tiny, red, and a convertible. Well. . . sort of.

See, in order to be a convertible, there needs to be something to "convert." The top on this car was full of holes and ragged. It was a little less "convertible" and a little more "topless."

This car taught me to have a sense of humor.

I live in the Midwest, where the weather is unpredictable. I would hear the thunder roll, completely unexpected on what started out a sunny day. My hand would shoot up from the back of the science classroom, and the teacher wouldn't even ask what I wanted, "Yes. You can go put the tarp on your car."

The rain ran down into the electric windows and fried them. They were held in place with bolts, bolts that would fly out when I hit pot holes, sending the glass crashing down into the door frame, having to be dug back up with pliers.

Once, I was driving back from a friend's house late at night. It was a beautiful summer night with crisp, cool air. I know this because the crisp, cool air was ripping through the holes in the top. A particularly productive gust caught hold in just the right way and--before I knew what happened--ripped half of the roof off, leaving it flapping in the wind behind me like a giant, elegant scarf. I just kept driving.

A car behind me started flashing its lights and honking. Pulling up beside me, the driver started gesturing. Really? Did you think I didn't notice half my roof was gone? I'm aware. I just learned to laugh about it.

The Acclaim
This Plymouth Acclaim taught me to value my life.

It leaked gas and also had a broken gas gauge. This is a bad combination. I ran out of gas constantly, especially when making the three hour drive between my hometown and college. I learned to sit quietly on the side of the highway and not make any eye contact with passers-by, patiently awaiting the roadside assistance crew who shook their heads at the "silly girl" who didn't stop for gas.

While driving, I watched errant cigarette butts in wide-eyed horror, wondering if my car could burst into flames.

After two high-speed blowouts and a stuck accelerator cable that left me careening out of control down a residential street, I gave the car away. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, and I still had my life to think of.

So, there's something to be said for toughening it out, but there's also something to be said for safety. If my mom can swing it, I think she should help my brother out. There are other ways to learn.

Image: Used under Creative Commons from Marco Tamma

Monday, November 7, 2011

Men of Scandal--What Justin Beiber and Herman Cain Teach Us

I don't know if any of the allegations against Justin Beiber or Herman Cain are true. What I do know is that the reactions to these two scandals reveal some things about our societal norms and perceptions.

Let's start with Justin Beiber:
Justin Bieber

A spokesperson for Beiber stated today that the pop star will take a paternity test in wake of allegations that a 30-second, backstage hookup with Mariah Yeater resulted in the birth of her child. Beiber denies any truth to the rumors, and it all sounds pretty ridiculous, but regardless of the truth in the matter, the reactions surrounding the allegations have revealed some pretty interesting/disturbing things about the way we view sex.

This woman is claiming not only that she had sex with a minor in a backstage bathroom, but also that she took his virginity. There's some really interesting power dynamics in play. Here is an older woman who suggests that she is taking a younger man's (or, boy's, really) virginity. In that scenario, she's very much in control of the situation. But added to her allegation is that once they got inside of the bathroom, Beiber became "more aggressive" saying that he wanted to "f*ck the sh*t" out of her. It reminds me of the stand-up comic who joked about rape, attempting to justify his disgusting actions by claiming that the woman was physically stronger than him. By pointing out Beiber's alleged aggressiveness, is Yeater attempting to deny her own agency in the act? Or is she simply trying to re-position herself as the dominated sex partner? Even if the allegations are true, it's fascinating that she would tell the story in this way--first making herself the aggressor and then pitting herself as dominated. And if the story is a fabrication for attention and publicity, what does it say about our societal views on sex that she felt the need to position herself in this way?

Then there's the rather depressing claim that the story can't possibly be true because this girl is too ugly to have sex with Justin Beiber. Really? That's the part of the story that seems unreasonable?

Then there's Herman Cain:
Herman Cain 

Again, I have no idea if the allegations against Cain are true, and that's not really what I'm focusing on here. 

After the most recent--and first public--allegation came forward, the reactions have gotten interesting. 

As Jill at Feiministe points out, many news reports are couching this woman's claims as "sexual harassment." However, Sharon Bialek's accusations are pretty extensive: "He put his hand on my leg, under my skirt, reached for my genitals. He brought my head toward his crotch." And that's not "sexual harassment," or "inappropriate behavior." That's pretty clearly sexual assault. 

Finally, several people are asking (in comments, mostly) why this woman didn't come forward until now (since the alleged incident happened over a decade ago). Some of the other comments, however, might hold a possible answer. Several commenters suggest that, by not protesting when Cain updated her hotel room to a suite and having dinner with him, Bialek knew what she was getting herself into and should have expected the advances. In fact, many suggest that--if the story is true--she's the one being unreasonable. The following comments are from the CNN article on the topic:
18EYes that what any reasonable person would do after being fired from a major corporation, that lasted less than a full six months.  Fly two hours from the city you worked in, to the nations capitol, where the CEO's office is located.  Car service and check into a  WDC hotel suite.  Go out to dinner at night with the CEO, to ask on help or advice on getting a job.  Right. 
I'm still trying to figure out what he did wrong here.  So he approached him for a favor and he hit on her.......so what.  It happens everyday.
And maybe this isn't the first time something like this has happened to this woman. In fact, since she's a pretty successful woman that works among men frequently, it's probably not the first time this has happened. (If you need a reminder that the world is still full of gender inequality, go over and take a look at  #mencallmethings on Twitter--a look at some of the things feminists on the internet get called over and over again). If that's the case, maybe Bialek didn't come forward with this earlier because it didn't register as something worth reporting. Cain assaulted her, she said no, he backed off. In a world where sexual harassment is commonplace, that might not get the attention it deserves--even from the person experiencing it. I know there are times when I've been harassed in workplaces (like a manager coming up to me at the fast food restaurant I worked at in high school telling me "if I were ten years younger or you were ten years older, the things I would do to you") that I didn't report. Things that seem inconvenient, but also unavoidable. Things that are part of the culture we live in.

And that's what interests me the most about this story. If the allegations are true, these women are coming forward because other women are coming forward. It isn't until this man is in the spotlight for the highest position in the country that people would listen (and, even then, many are rejecting the alleged victims as silly women who don't understand the way things work). How many people would have listened before?

Photos: cukuskumir, Gage Skidmore