Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Punctuality and PhDs

My mornings are hectic. Part of this is because I juggle responsibilities as a student, wife, mother, and employee, but a lot of it is just because I'm not a particularly organized person and I hate mornings. Getting out of the house is a delicate balance. I have to leave the house early enough to get to work on time and late enough to avoid getting my daughter to daycare too early (leaving me a 15 minute window between daycare drop off and the start of work). Sometimes my husband does drop-offs so I don't have to worry about it. By navigating the complexities of this balance with various degrees of success, I've learned something.

If I leave my house at 7:35, I will get my daughter to daycare on time and I will get to work on time.
If I leave my house at 7:40 (a mere 5 minute difference), it's anyone's guess. I may arrive at both places on time, or I may arrive 5-10 minutes late to work (in which case I just make up the time over lunch or at the end of the day).
If I leave the house at 7:45 (10 minutes late), I will arrive to work 5-10 minutes late.
If I leave the house at 7:55 (20 minutes late), I will arrive to work 5-10 minutes late.

Do you see what time does there? It cheats.

It's not actually time. It's traffic. But still. That's a lot of calculating so early in the morning.

Traffic jam
From Wyscan
I'm telling you this not-particularly-interesting story to illustrate a point. See, if I leave the house at 7:35, I'm golden. But this is also (for some unknown reason) nearly impossible. When it happens, I am astonished, and pretty much attribute it to magic. Most mornings, I am left with a decision. When I miss the 7:35 mark, I can either rush, rush, rush to try to meet the 7:40 mark (where I might still be on time) or I can accept that I'm likely going to be late and let it slide. If I do that, it doesn't matter if I leave at 7:45 or 7:55 because the impact is the same. I can spend those ten minutes getting stuff together around the house or I can spend them sitting in traffic. I'll still get to work 5-10 minutes late.

Those ten minutes can be glorious. I load the dishwasher, put in laundry, or read a quick book with my daughter. I double check my gym bag and never forget socks on those days. Those ten minutes can be amazing. 

This makes me think about my doctoral program. 

See, I have always been a punctual person. I hate getting to work 5 minutes late. When I tell friends I'll meet them for dinner at 7:00, I will be there at 6:50 and then start to worry that I'm at the wrong place when I don't see them at 6:59. (I know, I know--they're not showing up until 7:10 and that's perfectly normal. Quit judging me.)

This desire for punctuality carried into my academic pursuits. I was 17 when I graduated high school and itching to enroll in college. I did, and I almost graduated in December because I took the maximum number of credits basically every semester (an advisor talked me out of it because she said it was better to apply to graduate school in the fall). Then, I applied for MA/PhD programs and envisioned myself whisking through the next five years, getting my PhD at 27 and driving off into the proverbial sunset. 

I turn 27 this year. I will not be getting a PhD. 

See, what actually happened is that I flew through my MA degree on time, and then I panicked about my life. What was I doing? What was I going to do? What did I want to do? These are still questions I examine often--maybe too often. 

I decided (with great trepidation) that I would stop after my Master's and try to piece together a living until I figured out if a PhD was really for me. 

Then, something amazing happened. A friend told me about a position at the university and she thought I should apply. I did, and I got it, and I loved it. But the position put me in another quandary. One of the benefits of working at the university was tuition remission. I could continue working on my PhD--for free. 

All of that hand-wringing and agony over decided to stop at the Master's was wasted. I had convinced myself I had arrived at the right conclusion, but I threw it aside without a second glance and enrolled in part-time coursework. 

I now take one class a semester. After this semester, I have one class in my field and one class to fulfill a language requirement. Then I have to take exams, write a dissertation, and defend. I'm still working full-time and now I'm also the mother of a toddler. 

I feel like I gave up on trying to get to work on time and now have those ten amazing minutes to get things in order. Because I slowed down from a break-neck pace, I found time to actually analyze what it is I want to study, what it is I should be doing--for me. If I had tried to continue my PhD as a full-time student, I wouldn't have made it. I wasn't sure enough about myself as a scholar or where my passions truly were. It was only by slowing down and taking time to put things in order that I found these things. 

I'm not suggesting that everyone quit working on their degrees and slow down their progress. After all, leaving the house at 7:35 and getting to work on time is still my favored option. I'm just saying that a setback can have its perks, and I'm glad I was running late that day. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rape is Not That Hard to Define

My heart is heavy today.

Someone close to me, someone I love, was violated. I call it rape. Other people do not, and their refusal to name it for what it is frustrates me. In fact, it angers me. 

Here--with permission--is the story:
A woman enters a new relationship with a man that she likes, a lot. They hang out, and talk, and laugh, and get to know one another. They have sex. They have fun and enjoy each other's company. The woman tells the man that they can only have sex if they use condoms. She is on birth control, but she is being smart. The man tries to get her to stop using condoms, but she insists that they are a necessity. He complains, but concedes. Then, sometimes, he does not concede. Sometimes, he takes the condom off after sex has begun. When she tells him no, not like this, he is charming and reassuring. "It will be fine." She is frustrated and tired of arguing. She does not continue to fight.  
Weeks later. She gets sick. Her fever is high enough to cause hallucinations. She thinks it is the flu. She takes ibuprofen and tries to sleep. She gets worse. Finally, with a fever over 104 degrees, she heads to the emergency room. There she is given antibiotics and a diagnosis: STDs, potentially incurable ones. Hopefully not life-threatening ones.  
She confronts the man, and he immediately apologizes. He does not deflect, he does not get defensive. He apologizes and says he didn't know. He says he loves her. He says he's sorry. So, so, sorry. 
 But is he apologizing for rape? Because that's what he did. He raped her. She said no, and he kept going.

Some people have already started shaming her. Some people have told her she "put herself in this situation." These are people who are supposed to care about, love her. Other people feel sorry for her, but do not call this crime what it is. It is "unfortunate." Yes, perhaps. But it is also rape.

It doesn't matter if she said yes in the first place; that "yes" had conditions that were no longer met when he took off the condom. That "yes" was void.

And it wouldn't matter if she said "yes" and then decided "no." When one person says no, it is the other person's responsibility to stop.

She does not deserve to be shamed over wanting to have a healthy, adult, sexual relationship. That is her right. She has the right to want pleasure. She has the right to want love. She has the right to have sex.

She also has the right to say no, and that right was violated.

I am so, so angry at the man who did this. I am also angry at those who refuse to acknowledge it.

We live in a culture that excuses and sometimes (like in the video below) glorifies rape and sexual predation.


People say that it's too difficult to call this type of situation "rape" because it's too hard to determine consent. Too hard? As blue milk excellently explains, it doesn't have to be difficult at all, and it can be damn sexy:
I don’t know why the idea has persisted that asking for consent is necessarily a clinical business – what is stilted about – more? do you want to? do you like? Because “mood-killer”? Are you kidding me? That moment when they close the space between you both and ask you to put your cards on the table – is this on or not, can I do this with you – is one of the most heart-flippingly exciting moments in all of existence. Eat those moments up because they are the episodes of your life that you will daydream about when you’re ninety years old.
Do you know what's not sexy? Harboring a potentially lifelong disease because someone could not take "no" for an answer. That? That is rape. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Finally Watched The Help

I have a confession. I was scared to watch The Help.

But I wasn't scared to read about The Help, so that's what I did. I read articles about issues that tarnish the book and the problem of white authors writing about black characters. I read about Ablene Cooper's lawsuit claiming that the book was based on her life and its subsequent dismissal for exceeding the statute of limitations. I read reviews from white readers who weren't sure how they should feel about the book and meta-criticism of the film's critics. I saw that the Association of Black Women Historians  denounced the film as an extreme distortion of reality. I saw the claims that the film was just another in a long line of feel-good films aimed at white liberals, best summed up by this parody poster:

Source


Then I saw that the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, and I decided it was time to swallow my fear and watch the thing.

I'm a pretty critical person (as my previous posts may have indicated) and I get very frustrated by many of the Hollywood depictions of racial controversy (you don't want to get me started on Precious or The Blind Side, for instance). I was actually pretty sure I wouldn't like this movie, but there was one thing in my mind as it started to play. 

We'd been talking about the film in one of my graduate rhetoric classes, and one of my classmates--a very intelligent woman whose ideas I respect--said (paraphrasing) "I went into this movie planning to be critical, but I got so caught up in the story that I don't think I was."

Maybe that's what happened to me, but I was taking notes, so I have to have been at least a little critical. Still, if you tally up all the pro and con checkmarks, I come out liking the movie. I can't completely articulate everything I think about it, but here's some thoughts. I'd love (really, love) to hear what you think of it and why. I probably spent way too much time thinking about this before I watched it, and I realize that liking the story might be blinding me to some issues that I haven't fully thought through. Let me know what you think. 

Oh, and for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to focus primarily on the "text" of the film itself.  I'm not saying that Ms. Cooper's lawsuit and the conversation over who has the authorial right to tell these stories isn't important, but I want to focus on the film as cultural commentary and as story. 

Pros
  • Facing privilege- One of the problems I had with The Blind Side was that it followed such a narrative of some compassionate white person lifting some poor black person out of the depths of his despair through sheer kindness and selflessness. I was expecting to see a version of this story in The Help, and it seems like some people feel that's what it did. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance of this narrative, however. Skeeter (the aspiring journalist who collects the maids stories) is not--in my view--the heroine of the film. In fact, I don't think she's even that important of a character. She is a vehicle, and her role is that of a tool that's used to bridge a gap in perspectives. Yes, that bridge is necessary because of horrendous acts of racism, but her role as bridge is not in and of itself racist. Furthermore, her characterization didn't suggest to me that she saw herself as savior. In fact, when she suggested that she couldn't leave the maids to take a job in New York, they scoffed at her and told her to leave, making it clear that this was never her story or her life. Finally, Skeeter is only able to become the vehicle for this story by facing her own privilege--and her own racism. She recognizes the role that she's played in these women's lives by growing up in this town. She is often a passive participant in conversations with the other women of the town that demean and abuse the maids. Throughout the story, she discovers flaws in herself as a representative of her culture. That's work that privileged people need to--and often don't or can't--do. I was glad to see it depicted on screen. 
  • Acting Performance- Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earned their Oscar nominations. Their work was compelling and brought the story to life. They are clearly talented actors, and their roles were complex enough to demonstrate those qualities. Even the more static roles (such as the women of the town, which were sometimes frustrating in their one-dimensional portrayals as out-of-touch and spoiled rich girls), were cast with attention to talent in mind. 
  • Themes of Isolation and Mobility- Through all that reading, I was under the impression that this would be a simple and entirely pathos-driven account of how one young white woman rallied together a group of black maids and allowed them a path to their dignity (a story I was not looking forward to seeing play out). But that's not what I saw. As I mentioned above, I didn't see Skeeter as a path or even a very active agent in the story telling. The film opens on, closes on, and is narrated by Aibileen. It is her story, and it is not a simple one. It is a story of isolation and the desire for mobility on all fronts. From the maids' accounts of gross racial injustices that they face every day to Skeeter's awkward attempts to remain close to high school friends she has clearly grown beyond to Celia Foote's heartbreaking desires to be part of the town's social scene, we see a series of women looking at life through a barrier. While, yes, the Hollywood ending might wrap that up a little too neatly, it is not the simplistic portrayal I had been groomed to expect. 
Problems
  • Portrayal of black men- The portrayal of black men was simply abysmal. They were nearly entirely absent from the film, and when they did appear it was often as violent, angry caricatures. Though the film is very female-centric, we get characterization and sympathetic views of some of the white men, but none of the black men. Minny's abusive husband, for instance, is only represented through his shouting and the objects he throws at his wife from invisible hands. 
  • The dialect- As the Association of Black Women Historians point out the dialogue in the film is not representative of real speech patterns and it helps promote a stereotypical depiction. 
  • The promotion of the film- I saved this for last because it is the one that frustrates me most. Watch this trailer for the film. 
Who looks like the star of that film? To me, the clear protagonist of the trailer is Skeeter. Her story of standing up to her town to write this book looks like the central focus. The maids look like pawns falling into place to help her with her story. That's not how the film unraveled at all. As I mentioned above, the story (of the film) is clearly Aibileen's and the stories of the maids are clearly their own. When they tell their stories to Skeeter, their posture, their tone of voice, and their determination make it clear that they are speaking on their own behalf's, not to help Skeeter promote her dream of journalism. Skeeter may be providing them an outlet, but--again--she's just the vehicle for a desire that is fully theirs, fully owned.

So why was the film promoted so differently? Was it because the film industry thought that selling a white woman rescuing a group of down-trodden stereotypical black maids would go down smoothly?

This is related to one other concern. As much as I liked this movie, I do wonder why this is the version of the story that gets all of the attention. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of black women writing their own stories, but they're not getting this level of attention or Oscar nominations. While I think that it is perfectly valid for a white woman to write through her own perspective on race issues (in fact, I think it's important that she does), I also think it's problematic that those are the only stories that get circulated and promoted. The Help was set amongst the violent backdrop of the 1960's and Skeeter acted as a bridge to get a story that couldn't be told to the dominant society in other ways--why do we still need a bridge to hear this story today?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Home Births vs. Hospital Births: Who Gets Lost in Dichotomizing Rhetoric

Several news outlets--including CNN, NPR, and TIME--are reporting on the recent rise in home births in the U.S. And they've got something significant to report: home births are up nearly 30% since 2004.

These findings, of course, have fueled the ongoing divide between home and hospital births, which (almost always, in my experience) quickly falls into a debate between medicated and non-medicated births. 

These divides make some sense. Obviously, many of the medical options that come standard in a hospital (like pain medication) aren't going to be available during a home birth. 

Pregnant Lotus Smirk
From bettina n

Home birth advocates stress the importance of a woman's autonomy during the birthing experience and criticize the medicalized view of birth in the U.S. as limiting and restrictive to women. My own birth experience (non-medicated in a hospital), while ultimately positive (I got a healthy baby girl, and I didn't have meds), was frustrating because of the limits that were placed on me and the way I was treated as if control over my body wasn't mine to take. 

Hospital birth advocates claim that the risks of home births are too high, and that women who wish to birth at home are selfishly putting their own unrealistic expectations before the safety of their children. 

Both of these views are reflected in this quote from the TIME article:
A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that planned home births involved less medical intervention — fewer epidurals, episiotomies and infections and less emphasis on electronic fetal heart rate monitoring — but they were associated with three times the number of infant deaths. “Keep in mind that the absolute risk is still incredibly low,” says Macones. “But obstetrics is a risky business sometimes.”
These results have been disputed, with some saying there were design flaws in the study's meta-analysis approach.  Studies have also shown that increased risks disappear for low-risk, second (or more) pregnancies.

While there is plenty to unpack from this argument, I want to focus on the way that these studies and arguments get dichotomized and how that dichotomization hurts women who may not have some of the privileges of those driving the discussion.

Some recent posts on Feministing featured famed midwife Ina May Gaskin. The comments on these posts demonstrated the way that the home birth/hospital birth debate can become ugly in a hurry--and this is among a community of women who self-identify as feminists (and thus pro-woman). Even though many of these comments were respectful and well-stated, they still display the dichotomy in progress. Many of the women on this thread expressed that the home birth movement made them and their ideals feel attacked:

"I do have a problem with some of the home-birth movement’s sense of ideological purity, which sometimes goes so far as to shame women who choose to give birth in hospitals and who choose to have modern pain mitigation." -L. K. Lowe
"Can we please not confound feminism with the naturalistic fallacy? Just because birth is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe or de facto good. Kidney stones are natural, I don’t see people feeling they are somehow morally superior for passing those at home without medication or medical supervision." -Petra
I don't want to belittle L. K. Lowe's point that women feel judged for having a hospital birth--in fact, her point is kind of my point, too. However, women also feel judged for having home births. Take a look at this blog post that belittles women's attempts to have control in their births:
Home birth as a way to find a loving supportive environment and fight the enslavement of the patriarchy is absolute, utter nonsense.   It’s one of the only medical scenarios I can think of where women place health and welfare in jeopardy in order to feel “in control” and avoid intervention. 
And, of course, there's Amy Tuteur whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to demonize women who choose births outside of hospitals, demonstrated most clearly on her blog, but also--inevitably--in the comments of nearly every single major article on the subject (including the Feministing ones).

I fully support a woman's decision to have a home birth. I was very frustrated by my hospital experience and felt that I was not respected or treated with compassion. I hated the way the medical community made me doubt my own body, and I hated how much I had to fight just to give birth to my child. I completely sympathize with someone who doesn't want to have that battle and sees avoiding the battleground as the easiest way to do it. I also completely respect people who simply think that their homes are the best environment for birth. I think that women should be allowed to make sound judgments about their own birthing experiences, weigh any risks for themselves, and be informed advocates for their actions.  However, I think that the way this conversation gets framed is damaging all of us, and some of us more than others.

When we turn birth experiences into an either-or dichotomy, we miss the opportunity to join our voices and advocate for changes in medical policies and research. That hurts all of us, but it especially hurts women who may lack the socio-economic privileges that the women at the forefront of these arguments are granted.

Looking at the planned home birth statistics, it is clear that most of that 30% increase can be attributed to a narrow demographic: educated, well-off, older, white women.

The NPR article explains that "The increase in home births isn't occurring among all women. The trend appears to be being driven primarily by older white women, according to the report. Home births increased 36 percent among white women between 2004 and 2009."


Other statistics back up this trend. [Edit: I re-worded this section for clarity and added the comparative percentages for hospital births] One study looked at home births (link requires subscription access) across 19 states in 2006. The study aimed to compare the demographics of planned home births, unplanned home births, and hospital births.

  • 90.1% of planned home births were to white women, compared to 5.6% for Hispanic women and 2.2% for African American women (by comparison, the percentages for hospital births were 49.7% white, 32.2% Hispanic, and 11.9% African American)
  • 91.7% of planned home births were to married women (compared to 61% of women birthing in hospitals)
  • 54.9% of planned home births were to women with 13+ years of education (compared to 48.8% of women birthing in hospitals)
It's important to also understand that many of the risks associated with home births are particularly true for unplanned home births. The same study has the following statistics on these kind of births:
  • For unplanned home births 44.5% of the mothers were white, 25.4% were Hispanic, and 24.1% were African American (note that women of color have disproportionately high unplanned home births compared to the percentages for planned home births and hospital births)
  • Only 36.2% of unplanned home births occurred in women with 13+ years of education
  • Only 46.2% of unplanned home births occurred in married women 
A similar profile of births in Utah (a state not recorded in the previous study) had the following results about planned home births [Edit: I also added the comparative stats for all births to this section]:
  • 90.9% of planned home births were to married women (83.3% of women were married in all births recorded) 
  • 41.8% of planned home births were to women with post-high school education (compared to 37.9% of all births recorded) and 40.9% were to high school graduates (compared to 45.2% of all births recorded) (so about the same percentage of 13+ year education across the board in Utah)
What do these results tell us? They tell us that the women who are likely to choose home birth are more likely to be highly educated, married, and white. In other words, the women who choose home birth are the ones who benefit the most from privilege in our society. To me, this means that these are the women who have the greatest access to information and the greatest ability to go against societal standards for birth through informed self-advocacy. They are also the ones who are likely able to afford the services of a midwife or doula if their insurance doesn't cover it (and they're the ones more likely to have insurance to begin with). 

But what about women who do not have these privileges. What about women of color? What about women without a high school degree? What about women who are not married and may not enjoy the benefits of a two-income household? What about women who never even know that they have options on how they give birth?

To be clear, I'm not trying to say that women of color or unmarried women are incompetent and incapable of getting information about their birthing options, as I know many are. I'm just pointing out that privilege makes a difference, and when the privileged people in society (as they so often are) are the ones in charge of the narrative, those who don't benefit from privilege often suffer. 

In this case, they suffer because the dichotomy keeps us from enacting real policy changes in our birthing culture. Maybe many women don't feel comfortable with a home birth for whatever reason (it's outside of their cultural norms, they can't afford a doula, they don't have a home suitable for birthing, they don't have a supportive partner to help with the birth and recovery, they prefer a hospital out of safety concerns, etc.) These women still deserve to have options and autonomy in their birthing choices, and when we turn the debate into HOME="NATURAL" HOSPITAL=MEDICATED and then focus all our energy on deciding who is "right" in that debate, we lose sight of (in my opinion) the real goal: getting ALL women, regardless of their socioeconomic status and regardless of where they give birth, autonomy over their bodies, access to information, and the right to birth without fear and coercion. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Something Oddly Familiar: What to Expect When You're Expecting Film Promos

I know, I know, "never judge a book by its cover." But what about judging movies by their posters?

I'm talking about the star-studded cast for the upcoming What to Expect When You're Expecting. Five new promo posters for the film have been released, and they are . . . interesting.





Images from ivillage
Body Portrayal 
First, there's the obvious issue of unrealistic body image. Many of these women are sporting late third-trimester baby bumps, and yet they are all fit, thin, and radiant. This is an unrealistic depiction of pregnancy, and thin celebs may be contributing to the problem of "pregorexia," the dangerous restriction of calories during pregnancy by a mother-to-be who is desperate to avoid weight gain. To be fair, since these celebrities are already much thinner and fitter than the general population, this is really just an extension of the well-documented narrow portrayal of body type (and the damaging effects) in the media. Still, it's worth pointing out that these posters further that narrow portrayal of women's bodies and that the effect it can have on viewers may be exacerbated by the fact that women are already sensitive about pregnancy weight gain. 

For the record, I'm not saying that we shouldn't show any thin women on the screen. I don't want to set up a dichotomy that suggests "real women" are curvy and thus thin women are somehow "fake." (See more from Sociological Images on how this kind of thinking damages all of us). But look at those posters again. The range of body type displayed is limited from thin to very-thin. I'm just asking for a more realistic representation. 

Stereotyping
I also take issues with the combination of tag lines and clothing for each of these women, which seems to be setting them up to play very narrowly defined characters. From top to bottom:
  • The Edgy One- Dressed in black with punk-inspired bracelets, Anna Kendrick's character declares "You pee on a stick. It's pretty idiot proof." I look for her character to be the one who's trying to stay cool and disconnected. She'll likely be rolling her eyes at those pregnant ladies going into a panic. Then she'll have some moment of crisis that makes her realize how real this all is. You know the drill. 
  • The Earth Mama- Jennifer Lopez's character is dressed in an earth-toned sundress with her hair pulled back in a casual bun. She has on natural-looking bracelets and is wearing subtle make-up. She's our Earth Mama, and that fits with tagline of "I can't wait to meet my baby." Her plot line revolves around adoption, and I suspect that her character will be a very relatable and sympathetic one that the audience roots for. 
  • The Overwhelmed Housewife- Elizabeth Banks' character is shown cursing ("I'm calling bull$#!%. Pregnancy sucks.") yet she's also wearing traditional pearls and a girly-pink fitted dress with floral lace. Her hair and make-up are pronounced and professional. She is likely going to portray an All-American woman who has been able to handle it all with grace and thought dealing with pregnancy would just be a matter of doing it the "right" way. She'll get her comeuppance when she realizes that pregnancy's not all that it's cracked up to be. I suspect that her character will start out annoying and become more sympathetic when she reaches her breaking point. 
  • The Sexy One- Long, flowing blond locks, a black dress over a feminine-but-not-girly green camisole, delicate gold jewelry, and a come-hither stare: Brooklynn Decker's character is sexy. Just in case all of that didn't make it clear enough, her tagline says "I just have all this extra energy. Plus I'm crazy horny." She's Sex and the City's Samantha--but pregnant. 
  • The Sporty One- Cameron Diaz's character has her hair pulled back in a pony tail. She's wearing athletic gear and very natural makeup. Her arms are toned. Her tagline says "If I knew I'd have a rack like this, I would have gotten knocked up years ago" which demonstrates that even a fitness-focused woman should ultimately be concerned with her physical (sexual) appeal. 
Wait. I've seen this somewhere before. Like, maybe in 1997. I really, really, really wanna zigga-zig-what?


It's the pregnant Spice Girls!

Anna Kendrick is Scary Spice with her edgy, not-going-to-conform attitude, Jennifer Lopez is Baby Spice with her sweet, gentle nature, Elizabeth Banks is Posh Spice with her sense of style and refinement (gone awry by pregnancy, no doubt), Brooklynn Decker is Ginger with her undeniable sex appeal, and Cameron Diaz is Sporty Spice with her athletic wear and pony tail. 

I know these posters are just quick glimpses meant to promote the movie, but I'm not particularly excited about seeing worn out cliches for female identity stuffed with fake belly bumps and primed to be stereotypical lenses through which to view impending motherhood. 

I'm willing (even hoping) to be wrong, as I would like to see more pop culture portrayals of pregnancy and parenthood in ways that make us question our assumptions. It's just that--judging from the glimpses they've given me so far--I don't think this will be it. 

Here's the trailer:


What do you think? Do you plan to watch it? Do you think it will be good?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Punk Rock Girls v. Manic Pixie Dream Girls

I was creating a playlist for my new running strategy (which is working!), and I stumbled upon a song I hadn't listened to in a long time: "Punk Rock Girl" by The Dead Milkmen.

I was three years old when "Punk Rock Girl" was released, so I am too young to have really experienced the punk rock movement. But it wasn't for lack of trying. My teenage angst, rural isolation, and publicly displayed family chaos managed to combine with my longstanding outcast status and manifested itself as a Warped Tour-loving, weird clothes-wearing misfit. 

Anyway, I (mostly) grew up, but I still hold a soft spot for that elusive image of the "punk rock girl." I started to think more about what this character represents, and I realized that she comes up in several songs that I listened to in my teen years:

The Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl" (obviously)



Something Corporate's "Punk Rock Princess"


Bowling for Soup's "Girl All the Bad Guy's Want"



So, as I just re-listened to these songs with my now grad-school trained, overly-analytical, have-to-ruin-every-piece-of-pop-culture-from-my-past ears, I wondered if that "Punk Rock Girl" was just another version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. 


This video from Bitch Magazine does a great job of breaking down the MPDG trope, but it's basically a female character (like Natalie Portman's from Garden State or Zooey Deschanel's from basically everything she does) who "exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man." The AV Club has a list of films portraying this trope. And this Jezebel article calls them the "scourge of modern cinema" claiming that "Anyone who telegraphs their so-called weirdness so outlandishly is not actually weird, they're merely quirky enough to be vaguely interesting without having their own thing going on." 


But what's so wrong with a guy liking a girl because of her quirkiness? Don't we all just want to be able to be ourselves and be loved for it. And--whether I like it or not--I like Natalie Portman's character, I like Zooey Deschanel (except for in The Happening; there was no excuse for that, Zooey). So, what's the problem? Well, Jamie Peck sums it up nicely in her sort-of defense of the MPDG. We can like the qualities and the meaning behind the trope of the MPDG (like uniqueness, and living life to its fullest):
"But at no point in time should you stop being the protagonist in your own story. The true crime of the MPDG is not her failure to adhere to social codes or function in capitalist society, but her lack of agency. She exists solely to help the male character actualize himself. The muse can’t keep any of her inspiration for herself, and that’s a damn shame, because I bet she could make something pretty cool if she tried."
The MPDG is a problem because she's not allowed to be a full person. She exists to further the story for the broody young man, and that man never appreciates her as a complex human being with her own story, problems, wants, and desires. She is a vehicle for him, and denied mobility for herself.

Is that all the Punk Rock Girl (PRG) is, too? (Say it isn't so!) Using the lyrics from these three songs, I decided to take a closer look.

There are definitely some problems:

  • The Male Gaze- In all of these songs, the "girl" in question is the subject of the male gaze, and the man has the power of speech. Even if the girl gets her name in the title, it is--at the end of the day--the man's song, and clearly his perspective.
  • Reduction to Quirks- Just like the MPDG, the PRG is frequently reduced to her quirks. She becomes the qualities that stand out about her. This is perhaps most clearly shown in the videos for the songs. For "Punk Rock Girl," we never clearly see the girl's face. We see glimpses of her blue mohawk, her boots jumping up and down on the restaurant table, pieces of her that the speaker is drawn to. Similarly, the girls in the video for "Punk Rock Princess" are highlighted for their jewelry and clothing choices. This is, ultimately, what makes them who they are. We also see this in the lyrics for the songs. 
    • From "Girl All the Bad Guys Want": There she goes again/With fishnets on, and dreadlocks in her hair/She broke my heart, I wanna be sedated/All I wanted was to see her naked! 
  • The Need to Fill a Void- For all of the male speakers, the PRG represents a potential answer to a void in their lives, just as the MPDG does. This is the biggest problem because, when a woman is reduced to "fixing" a man's life, she ceases to have agency in her own. If these PRG's only fill this role, then they are--indeed--no better than the MPDG. And it's clear that the male speakers want them to fill the role:
    • From "Punk Rock Princess": Maybe you could step inside/Maybe when I look for things that
      I can't replace/ I can't replace/I can't replace
    • From "Punk Rock Girl": One Saturday I took a walk to Zipperhead/I met a girl there/
      And she almost knocked me dead/Punk rock girl please look at me/Punk rock girl what do you see?/Let's travel round the world/Just you and me punk rock girl
    • From "Girl All the Bad Guys Want": And when she walks/ All the wind blows and the angels sing/ She doesn't notice me 
Things look bleak for the PRG, but I'm not done yet. See, there's the issue of tone in the songs. Two of these songs are pretty obviously meant to be humorous.

"Punk Rock Girl" takes many elements of "punk rock" identity and parodies them into absurdity:
We went to the Phillie Pizza Company/And ordered some hot tea/The waitress said "Well noWe only have it iced"/So we jumped up on the table/And shouted "anarchy"/And someone played a Beach Boys song/On the jukebox/It was "California Dreamin"/So we started screaming/"On such a winter's day" 
She took me to her parents/For a Sunday meal/Her father took one look at me/And he began to squeal/Punk rock girl it makes no sense/Punk rock girl your dad is the Vice President/Rich as the Duke of Earl/Yeah you're for me punk rock girl 
Screaming "anarchy" over tea? Rebelling against a successful father by dating a perceived loser? These are silly teenagers, and--even within the fictitious world of the song--that's apparent.

The same theme comes up in "Girl All the Bad Guys Want":
She likes the Godsmack and I like Agent Orange/Her cd changer's full of singers that are mad at their dad/She says she'd like to score some reefer and a forty/She'll never know that I'm the best that she'll never have 
And the absurdity of this rebellion-driven lust is doubly highlighted by the obvious parody in the video where the band mocks several other bands of the time for trying to be too (inauthentically) emotional with their music (a point the band will later reiterate with the release of their single "I'm Gay" and it's lyrics "Don't hate us cause we're happy/Don't hate us cause we make you smile")


That just leaves Something Corporate's "Punk Rock Princess," which seems to be a much more serious song. And it's in that seriousness that I find my reprieve:
I never thought you'd last/I never dream you would/You watch your life go past/You wonder if you should
If you should be my punk rock princess/So I could be your garage band king/You could tell me why you just don't fit in/And how you're gonna be something 
If I could be your first real heartache/I would do it over again/If you could be my punk rock princess/I would be your heroine
This song is more serious than the first two, but it also recognizes that the PRG is just a phase, a phase brought on by the frustration of seeking identity during adolescence. "You could tell me why you just don't fit in/And how you're gonna be something." 

This punk rock princess isn't some stagnant muse that exists to drag the speaker out of his own adolescent funk; she's in transition, on her way to becoming "something." And the speaker recognizes this. He doesn't expect her to remain his punk rock princess forever; he only asks for the chance to be her "first real heartache," a relationship that she can remember long after she's given up her fishnets and mohawks.

In the end, it is this more serious view of the PRG that informs the other two songs for me. All of these speakers know that they are seeing a woman in transition, a phase that can lead to growth. They're not going to be jumping on the table and screaming "anarchy" at 30. The wind doesn't actually blow and the angels don't actually sing when she walks in the room. These aren't songs asking a woman to remain forever trapped in a state of subservience to a male protagonist the way the MPDG is. No, these songs can be the answer to the MPDG problem. We can appreciate that mode of crazy, free falling, carelessness for what it is: transient.

These are songs appreciating the way that this brief phase of identity exploration can create a perfect bubble for a relationship built on freedom and belief in ourselves as unique--a bubble that will soon be burst by adulthood. If we're lucky, we can hang on to some of that magic as we move forward, telling our own stories, remembering those times.

Enjoy it, punk rock girls. You deserve it. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

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

The Good
This Chevy ad shows a little boy playing with a bunch of toys: trucks, super heroes, action figures, dolls, dollhouses. It's a great demonstration of how kids don't need their toys to fit squarely into a gender dichotomy. (Disclaimer: In order to keep this in "the Good" category, I have to suggest you don't read the comments.)


The Bad


Half of Teen Moms Don't Use Birth Control-
"Although the U.S. still boasts the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed nation, the national teen birth rate dropped in 2010 to 34.3 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, down from 37.9 the year before."


The Curious


The B-word- whose is it, anyway? Zosia Bielski has a very interesting article looking at the use of the word "bitch" in pop culture. Her discussion was sparked by a poem attributed to Jay-Z about how having his daughter made him vow to cut the word out of his songs, but it was later found to be written by a blogger to make a statement about the use of the word in hip hop.

The parents who kept the gender of their child Sasha secret for five years have revealed that Sasha is a boy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Paula Deen and Real Food

After my initial post about Paula Deen, I read this post from Civil Eats.

In my first post, I quoted Renee from Womanist Musings as saying this:
How is what Deen doing any more unconscionable than any fast food corporation, or any company that makes pre packaged foods? How many deceptive labels have you read over the years of so called healthy products?  I'll say one thing, Deen's food may not be healthy, but at least you can pronounce every single ingredient in it, and that is far more than I can say for the many of the items on todays grocery store shelves.  Obviously, I am not advocating that one consume food loaded in butter and to deep fry mac n cheese, but I do have a problem with a single woman being set up to look like the great Satan so that others can sit in judgement of her, when several corporations are guilty of so much more.   
Which is an interesting point, and one I am personally interested in as I've been trying to cut overly-processed foods from my diet.

The Civil Eats post, however, stated pretty much the exact opposite about Deen's meals:
The issue that mainstream media has largely overlooked is that Deen uses the processed, packaged versions of these foods, which are full of chemicals, additives and trans-fats. Actual home cooking would require whipping these foods up herself in her kitchen using real ingredients. And that is the real story behind Deen’s diabetes diagnosis: Her health problems are largely due to her reliance on packaged, processed foods that are the foundation for many of her recipes. 
Even though her cooking show is called Paula’s Home Cooking, there’s a lot going on in her kitchen that is as far removed from home cooking as you can get. Many of her recipes include “ingredients” like Krispy Kreme doughnuts, biscuit mixes, cans of mushroom soup, and sour-cream-and-onion flavored potato chips. This is processed food cooking, not home cooking.
So, who's right? Does, as Renee suggests, Deen's real food cooking somehow set her apart from the real culprits of fast food and packaged goods? Or does Deen's food, as Civil Eats charges, hide a series of processed, chemically-altered ingredients behind the mask of home cooking?

I took to Deen's website to find out. My method was to go to the recipes section and pick the fourth meal listed in each of the following sections: Appetizers,  Main Courses, Desserts, and Side Dishes. Here's the ingredient list for each one:

Appetizer: Tomatoes Stuffed with Chicken Salad
6   large tomatoes 2 cup chicken, cooked and cubed 1/2 cup minced red bell pepper 1/2 cup corn, drained 1 1/2 tablespoon minced red onion 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 1 tablespoon mayonnaise 1 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt Leaf lettuce or spinach leaves

Okay, so most of that is pretty good. The two bolded items are probably questionable. As Civil Eats notes, pre-prepared condiments like mayonnaise are often loaded with ingredients that aren't actually food. 


Of course, Deen doesn't specify what kind of condiments to use, but since her charge against Anthony Bourdain's past criticisms was that she makes food for everyday people, I'm going to assume it's not something too fancy. So let's look at Kraft Mayo. The ingredients:
Soybean oil, water, eggs, vinegar, contains less than 2% of egg yolks, lemon juice concentrate, salt, sugar, dried onions, dried garlic, paprika, natural flavor, calcium disodium edta
I've bolded the ingredients that concern me, calcium disodium edta because that's not any food I recognize and soybean oil because soy has become so prevalent in American diets, it frequently comes from genetically modified crops, and it has been linked to some health problems, including infertility. 

Main Course: Wayne's Beef Macaroni and Cheese

1 teaspoon each dried basil, cumin, and dried oregano Salt and pepper 3 cup canned crushed tomatoes2 lb lean ground beef 1 tablespoon chopped garlic 2 cup chopped onion 2 cup chopped green bell pepper 2 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 lb box elbow macaroni 2-3 cup grated cheddar cheese 
Okay, so all of the ingredients on this list are pronounceable, but what about the ingredients on the lists of these pre-packaged items? As the Veggie Queen points out, a common pasta brand like Barilla often has a lot of hidden, very processed ingredients that the consumer might not be thinking about and many brands of cheese (including Kraft) contain a "coagulating enzyme derived from either beef or swine."

Desserts: Work-a-holic's Hot Chocolate

Vanilla Custard:
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/2 cups milk, divided
1/2 cup sugar
2   large egg yolks
1   vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Hot Chocolate:
7 ounces (2 chocolate bars) semisweet chocolate, chopped 
1 cup milk, boiled
The ingredients in that chocolate bar?
Sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milk fat, soy lecithin, vanillin, artificial flavor, PGPR, emulsifier, milk

PGPR, by the way, stands for ployglycerol polyricinoleate and is used as a cost-reducing substance when making chocolate. My spell check didn't even recognize those as words, so I'm definitely not going to be recognizing it as a real food.

Side Dishes: Turkey/Chicken Stuffing
1 loaf of fresh white bread (3 for a turkey)1 small celery bunch diced (2 with turkey)1 large onion diced (3 for turkey)2 large eggs (up to 8 for turkey)1 large pinch of salt¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper½ pound unsalted butter (add ½ pound for turkey)¼ to ½ cup fresh turkey stock (optional)
This recipe also includes pre-packaged ingredients. Have you checked the list of ingredients in a standard loaf of bread. Maybe you even went with the "healthier" option and used wheat instead of white. Here's what you'd be getting:
Whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, contains 2% of less of: soybean oil, salt, molasses, yeast, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, calcium propionate  
So, who was right? Well, I agree that many of Deen's recipes appear to be using real foods if you just glance at the ingredient list, but considering that so many of her ingredients are measured in "cans" and "boxes," that's not telling the whole story. As Civil Eats points out, Deen is actually promoting a lot of processed foods. 

Hey, Mothers, Have Some Spare Time? We Need You to Stop the Obesity Epidemic.

This Los Angeles Times article presents the views of Melinda Sothern, a fitness and nutrition expert at Louisiana State University who believes that the current rising obesity rates can be attributed to the parenting practices of women in the 1950's:
The obesity epidemic has multiple causes, Sothern acknowledges. Food has changed in the last five decades. Americans have become much more sedentary. But she thinks that obesity rates soared just when they did — in the 1980s — because a generation of young women decades earlier smoked, spurned breast-feeding and restricted their weight during numerous, closely spaced pregnancies.
But her theory doesn't end there. See, these women then gave birth to babies who were likely to become large and have large babies themselves:
Over-nourished kids grew up to be over-nourished women, producing large babies. Large babies, just like too-small babies, are at heightened risk of obesity, says Sebastien Bouret, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the USC Keck School of Medicine. 
And, since she's dubbed her theory the "obesity trinity," we need a third wave of women to finish it off:
If yesterday's young women may have gotten us into the obesity epidemic, today's must be counted on to help us get out, Sothern said. She doesn't mince words when describing the necessary changes. 
"Significantly overweight women should not have babies. Women should be physically active and have a healthy diet for at least a year before pregnancy," she says. "I do think we can de-program, but you have to be very aggressive." 
Women should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed. They should not smoke. 
And after those babies become toddlers and enter preschool, they should have 60 minutes a day of recess plus a 40-minute physical education class. 
Reproductive-age women are, in fact, becoming attractive targets for change. 
Bettina Seigel over at The Lunch Tray responds to this post by scoffing at the amount of responsibility this puts on mothers and mothers-to-be:
There’s a fine line between giving women legitimate prenatal counseling and saddling them with responsibility for a public health epidemic that has its roots in everything from agricultural policies to food manufacturing practices to portion sizes at restaurants.  A woman’s weight during her childbearing years is certainly important and needs to be monitored, but bluntly telling significantly overweight women, as Sothern does in the article, that they “should not have babies” and that they “should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed” (an economic impossibility for many women), is only likely to raise hackles.
Consider my hackles raised. 


First, Sothern's entire argument seems pretty circuitous. Yes, many of the things she attributes to a typical 1950's pregnancy have been correlated with obesity (and general unhealthiness), but those are cultural norms that have since changed. Yes, the past does influence the present and thus the future, and I take no issue with looking to our past mistakes to prevent our future ones, but the dots she's connecting don't seem as clearly lined up to me as they do to her. 


While I'm skeptical of the rhetoric surrounding the "obesity epidemic" because of the way that it promotes body shaming and bolsters an industry of products designed to tell people how they should look, I'm fully convinced that fitness and eating habits of our culture as a whole could be much, much better. The factors suspected of contributing to these patterns are incredibly complex and diverse: food deserts, artificial sweeteners, sedentary jobs, GMOs, fluoride in drinking water, the rise of fast food, corn subsidies, and so on.


With a list of causes that vast, it's very difficult to tackle them all, and so--when we make individual decisions about our health and our lives--we inevitably pick and choose. This is exactly what Sothern did in her own life. Though she says that her own family is a perfect example of the 'obesity trinity,' she is able to combat the long-term damage of her mother's parenting decisions by making some lifestyle choices of her own:
Sothern, at a healthy-looking 5 feet 3 and 129 pounds, has spent her adult life beating down a tendency to pack on weight by sticking to a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fish and a regimen of dancing, biking, housework, gardening, sailing and strength training.
So she's focused on diet and exercise, and it's working, even with the burden that the "evil '50s" placed upon her.

To make the recommendation that "significantly overweight women should not have babies" and that women should "take one year off from work and breastfeed" is not only condescending and out of line, it is also elitist, dripping with privilege, and morally reprehensible.

Even if Sothern is right about her claims that the cultural norms of the 1950's contributed to some of today's societal problems, that is a macro-level analysis. To then break that down to making proscriptive judgments on the actions of individuals is problematic. The problems with BMI, for instance, are well documented. So while collective BMI might be helpful in showing obesity trends across the nation, they're not very helpful in determining the health of an individual. A person can have a high BMI (and thus be "significantly overweight") and be perfectly healthy. To then tell this person that she "should not have babies" is misguided and cruel.

Since obesity disproportionately effects minority populations (which would seem to suggest Sothern's theory isn't all that accurate to begin with, but I digress) making such a proscription has highly racialized implications as well.

Finally, to imply that women must take a year off from work to breastfeed their children ignores the fact that women can successfully breastfeed while working, de-emphasizes efforts to create policies to make breastfeeding on the job easier, and--most offensive to me--suggests that women's work is always optional, which both trivializes the work that women do and ignores the fact that many women's incomes are necessary for the sustainability of their families.

I wish Sothern well in her dancing, biking, gardening, fruit-filled life, but perhaps she needs to step outside of her bubble and into someone else's shoes before she places such a burden on the women of the world.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: The Underside of Joy

Sere Prince Halverson's novel The Underside of Joy reinvents the Solomon story for our modern times. Two women each claim to be the mother to two young children; of course, only one of them is the biological mother, and no one disputes that Paige carried, gave birth to, and briefly mothered the children. But then she left.

In steps Ella, the other woman, our protagonist, and a loving stepmother who gets the glowing recommendation of an entire town and her husband's extended family as the one who swooped in and filled the void left by the neglectful Paige. When the husband dies suddenly in a tragic accident, though, both worlds are turned upside down.

Solomon's wisdom resurfaces: the real mother is the one who puts the children's best interests first. But what does that mean?

Early in the novel, I became leery of these characters. Told through Ella's perspective, it seemed that both women were going to become simple tropes: Paige as wicked witch, Ella as perfect princess. But I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the characterizations as the novel went on. Just as in real life, no one plays a simple part. Ella surprises herself by questioning her abilities and finding the humanity in Paige. There are no easy answers.

The book was a quick, enjoyable read that was easy to follow. The dialogue and in-the-moment action are considerably more skillfully written than the exposition. Halverson is at her best when she trusts her readers to pick up the subtleties of her characters, but there are times when she was too careful to lay it all out in stilted, cumbersome exposition.

Though the crisis resolves a little too quickly and neatly for my tastes, the book is thematically rich and provides genuine insight into realistic characters.  I'm excited to see the conversations on the BlogHer Book Club about this piece, as I think there are several contemporary issues in motherhood, femininity, family, and identity to pull from it.

Compensation Disclosure: I was compensated by BlogHer for this review and received a copy of the book. Of course, all opinions and ideas are my own. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Paula Deen has Diabetes: Judgment and Public Personas



The above video gives a pretty good summary of what's going on with Paula Deen. She announced yesterday--after much internet speculation--that she does, indeed, have type 2 diabetes. In fact, she's known about the diagnosis for three years, which has led many to criticize her decision to publicly announce it only when it accompanies her new gig as spokesperson for  pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk and the face of their new Diabetes in a New Light program. 

As you might expect, this announcement has been met with harsh criticism. For one, Deen adamantly insists that she's not changing the way that she cooks (even though her Diabetes in a New Light promo does promise ways to make lighter versions of her favorite dishes). She is also shying away from implications that her recipes (which include things like the Lady's Brunch Burger--a hamburger patty, two slices of bacon, and a fried egg sandwiched between two glazed donuts) have anything to do with her diagnosis. She insists that she has always told her fans to "practice moderation" and that--as she told Oprah years ago--"I'm your cook, not your doctor."

The criticism turned ugly in a hurry. Nerdy Feminist gives a run-down of many of the comments Deen has been getting, noting that they tend to fall into two camps: "the first being that Deen got diabetes because she is fat, the second being that she is so gross." Many of the comments in the first camp indicate that Deen deserved to get diabetes because of her lifestyle choices. The people commenting on how gross Deen is tend to fall into standard fat-shaming. But, as both Nerdy Feminist and Renee from Womanist Musings note, we don't know what Deen's personal life is like. We have no way of knowing that she ate the food that she cooks on television at all, let alone on a regular basis. And, more importantly, her personal decisions to live her life and manage her disease are just that, personal. It is not our place to judge people's individual life choices, and Deen has the right to eat how she wants and manage her diabetes in whatever way she chooses. 

I want to be 100% on board with this stance because I agree, completely, that fat shaming is wrong. No one deserves to get diabetes, and dismissing someone's diagnosis so nonchalantly because of her body size is mean-spirted. Furthermore, size is not necessarily an indicator of health (Kate Harding has a great overview of this here). And, regardless of whether someone is making healthy choices or not, people deserve to be treated with dignity. Paula Deen is a person, and she has the right to privacy and respect. 

But something else that Renee said as well as the timing of this announcement have complicated this view for me. Renee goes on to say:
How is what Deen doing any more unconscionable than any fast food corporation, or any company that makes pre packaged foods? How many deceptive labels have you read over the years of so called healthy products?  I'll say one thing, Deen's food may not be healthy, but at least you can pronounce every single ingredient in it, and that is far more than I can say for the many of the items on todays grocery store shelves.  Obviously, I am not advocating that one consume food loaded in butter and to deep fry mac n cheese, but I do have a problem with a single woman being set up to look like the great Satan so that others can sit in judgement of her, when several corporations are guilty of so much more.
And I agree with the overall sentiment, for sure. Deen is not the sole contributor to unhealthy food in America (far from it). However, doesn't the fact that we can even compare her to a fast food corporation or a packaged food company mean something? What I'm saying is, I think that these attacks on Paula Deen the person are unwarranted and cruel, but what about the attacks on Paula Deen the brand?

And make no mistake. She is a brand. 

You can go into Wal-Mart and buy a box of Paula Deen cookware. She collaborated with Quality Food Brands in 2009 to produce her own line of spices and food items.  You can have some Paula Deen coffee that you made in your very own Paula Deen percolator and drink it out of the Paula Deen mug that you purchase from her online store.

If you have any doubts about Paula Deen's identity as a brand, take a look at this clip of her interview with Al Roker on NBC's TODAY show. Around the 54-second mark, she seamlessly moves from talking about her personal diagnosis to talking about the program Diabetes in a New Light. At this point, she directly talks to the audience, saying "you can go to our website. I'm going to be there for you and help you manage everyday of your life with this because it can be done." Bizarre. It's a clip that's presumably about her diagnosis, but she's spending it talking about the help she'll give you in managing your diabetes. Roker, noticing the scripted language she's fallen into, points out that she's a paid spokesperson, at which point she says "Absolutely. I have been compensated just as you are for your work." 

All this to say that, while I think that celebrities are entitled to their privacy and space to navigate their personal lives, these lines are blurred when celebrities intentionally create a public persona and then use elements from their personal lives to flesh out those personas. 

Deen was chosen as Novo Nordisk's spokesperson because of her familiarity and popularity, but also because of her diagnosis of diabetes. I fully believe that I have a right (and even a responsibility) to criticize products that I feel are dangerous, unhealthy, or misleading. Even on this blog, I've called out sexist advertisements, Lego's gender segregation, food labeling practices, ads that promote unhealthy competition between parents, and more. So, what is Paula Deen: person or corporation? Human being suffering from a private disease or mascot in the public eye? One of those deserves privacy and compassion; the other deserves scrutiny and criticism. 

There is probably a way to walk this line, but it is difficult. I think that it's possible to criticize Paula Deen the brand without falling into personal attacks on Paula Deen the person, but this requires a level of nuance and analysis that many people talking about this are simply not going to give. And it leaves us all worse off.

There are some very legitimate concerns to be voiced with Paula Deen the brand. The decision to act as if cutting out sweet tea and taking a few walks is a fine way to combat diabetes as long as you take your daily injection of medication ignores the holistic lifestyle changes that medical professionals recommend. The decision to ignore the fact that a diet high in fat and sugar has been strongly correlated with diabetes contributes to a culture where the disease is on the rise. These are things worthy of criticism when they're coming from a pharmaceutical or food company, and--in some capacity--Paula Deen is now representative of both. 

Paula Deen is primarily recognized as the brand that she has created, but the line between brand and person is further complicated when celebrities lend their personal image to a brand for a limited time. Where do we draw the line between personal and brand criticism then?

Consider Jennifer Hudson, who is the new face for Weight Watchers. When she appears on TV and does things like sing to her former (heavier) self, where does Jennifer Hudson the brand and Jennifer Hudson the person disengage?


I don't think we should ever have the right to judge someone else's body. However, it's hard to argue that position when Hudson herself seems to be asking for the judgment. "Look," this commercial says, "I used to be larger, and now I'm smaller. . . and better. Compare the past and present me." When are we no longer allowed to make that comparison? If, in six months or two years or ten years, Hudson gains weight, do we have the right, as consumers of the Weight Watchers brand, to be critical of her life choices because she placed herself into the role of that brand? 

A similar complication played out for Kirstie Alley, an actress who has constantly been in the public eye over her weight loss and gain. But did she move that criticism to a different level when she chose to be a spokesperson for Jenny Craig? And what about when she left the company? Does that shut down Kirstie Alley the brand and return her to Kirstie Alley the person?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that (despite what Mitt Romney might believe) corporations are not people. Corporations should be held to a higher standard of accountability and scrutiny. But what about people who align themselves with (or even become) corporations?