Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Rambling: Feminism, Parenting, Equality, and Ripping My Hair Out

Today, blogger Miriam wrote a goodbye post on Feministing announcing that she would be leaving the site to pursue other projects (including her own site Radical Doula). In her announcement, she left a few parting words about the future of feminism:

Feminism has yet to adequately adapt to these changes, and in my humble opinion, the crux of this adaptation is going to be about gender. Feminism needs a more nuanced understanding of gender in order to adequately address the sexism of tomorrow. Our movement can’t be about women versus men anymore. We all serve to benefit from feminism, and we all need to know our place in the movement.
My vision? A feminist movement that works toward a world where no one is limited or defined by their gender identity. This movement takes on a wide range of social justice issues and brings a gender lens to all of them. I think we’re headed in the right direction, but we need to continue to interrogate how gender stereotyping and gender essentialism holds us back from this goal.
I read those words and nodded. Especially resonating was the line "works toward a world where no one is limited or defined by their gender identity." And it doesn't surprise me that Miriam is also very concerned with birth politics and parenting because those issues really informed my own views on gender equality.

As I wrote in a previous post about the importance of dad's voices in the parenting blogosphere:
gender equality is not sustainable if it means only that women get the freedom to take on roles traditionally ascribed to men. In that model, women either have to take on double-duty, or the work traditionally done by women goes undone (and that work is important, so that's really not an option). In order for gender equality to be truly reached, men have to also be free to take on roles traditionally ascribed to women. The ideal is that individuals then take on the duties that make the most sense for their skill sets and interests (and divvy up the work no one wants to do fairly, without concern for gender stereotypes).
Furthermore, gender equality should not mean that women feel forced into traditionally male roles if that's not what they want or where they feel their skills and interests lie. We shouldn't think of men being able to take on "women's work" and women being able to take on "men's work" because--ideally--it would all just be "work."

But we can't get there just by willing it into existence. We are shaped by our cultural norms, and those cultural norms are deeply entrenched in a gender binary that pits breadwinning as a male-dominated role and caregiving as a female-dominated one. Even as individual people continue to illustrate that those rigid divisions don't always get maintained in actual lives, our cultural texts--films, commercials, television shows, songs--maintain them.

After posting about the Huggies campaign that demonstrates fathers to be incompetent and--by extension--pits mothers as locked into primary caregiving roles, I ended up in some conversations on Huggies Facebook page (probably beyond what was productive, but I digress). There, I saw many people (men and women) defending father's competence and expressing disappointment in the campaign. But I also saw many people dismissing these complaints (which is fine, not everyone has to see the world the way I do) and calling the people who were upset about the commercials--especially men--names.

Here's an example:

Over and over again I watched people dismiss the complaints about the commercial, and very few of the dismissals had to do with the actual argument against it in the first place. They tended to fall into a few--all too familiar--camps:

  • I'm not offended, so it's not offensive. Whether or not something is offensive on a social level isn't determined by one individual's reaction; it's determined by a careful analysis of the message sent by the text and the ways that different audiences receive that message. I'm not saying that you have to be offended. Your individual reaction is wholly your own, but that doesn't mean that people who are offended are somehow deficient. 
  • Don't you have something better to worry about? This is deflection. Yes, there are other issues. Yes, many of them are more important than this one. Many of them are less important than this one. This is not a zero sum game. We all take up the causes that resonate with us, and we all operate within our own experiences and abilities. This is an argument that is used to ignore the actual topic at hand. 
  • It's just a commercial! In my view, there is no "just a" text. All texts are fragments of a larger cultural milieu. These ideas did not spring forth from a  vacuum and they will not be heard in a vacuum. This commercial exists as part of the cultural text where movies, television shows, other commercials, etc. all send a similar message about fathers and the way parenting duties should be divided. These things add up. They count. 
Look, I know that I see the world through my own little lens. I don't expect everyone (or really anyone) to see the world in that exact same way. I don't expect everyone to get behind the same campaigns that I do. I don't expect everyone to agree with me all the time. What I do expect (perhaps too optimistically) is to be respected when I am respectful, to have debates over the content of my analyses, and to learn new things by hearing from other points of view.

For me, the issues of oppression, media, and ethical consumption are highly intertwined. The media around us is full of messages, and since those messages are created as part of a culture that is rife with various systems of oppression, many of those messages are going to promote those systems. I feel that it is my responsibility as a consumer and potential consumer of those media to choose wisely based on the messages sent. If an ad campaign promotes a rigid gender binary, I have a right to speak up against the company and spend my dollars elsewhere if they insist on keeping that message. I also have a responsibility to work against dismantling that message if I want to see a more equal world. The same goes for shows that promote racial stereotypes, commercials that exclude women, and toys that promote limited gender roles. 

One of the commenters calling me out on the Huggies page responded that my blog and I were misleading by pointing these things out. She went on to say that I was on a "crusade for equal rights." I don't see myself as effective enough to have a crusade, but if that's the worst thing that's said about me today, I can live with it. 

Follow-Up: Sign the Huggies Petition

In my last post, I went on a sarcastic rant about Huggies new "Nominate a Dad" campaign. Now that I've had some time to digest, I'd like to address it with a little less sarcasm and a little more analysis.

Here is a petition asking Huggies to stop using this campaign. And here's why I signed it:

Excludes: This Campaign Hurts Fathers
There are countless men in the world who are good, caring, loving fathers. A campaign based entirely on old stereotypes about how fathers are bumbling idiots when it comes to taking care of children ignores these men and their role as caregivers.

Cultural norms still dictate that men must be providers while women are caregivers, even as these norms don't reflect the reality of many families' economic and lifestyle choices. Many families equally share the responsibility of bringing in income. Some choose this option because work is important to both of them; some have to share this responsibility whether they want to or not because it is the only economically feasible option. In addition, many families are opting for a non-traditional arrangement where the father is the one who stays home full-time. Gay and lesbian couples raising children together also face the difficulties of limiting gender roles.

It may not seem like a big deal to have these norms remain in place even as they fail to account for the reality around us, but it is. When we constantly show men as incompetent fathers, we ignore their capabilities and experiences. Many men report the time they spend with their children as emotionally rewarding and an important part of their lives. Portraying men as incapable of being competent caregivers and as perpetually "less-than" mothers in this role excludes them from an important part of parenthood.

Excuses: This Campaign Hurts Mothers
In addition to excluding men from caregiving, this campaign (and any other promotion of the stereotype that men cannot be good caregivers) also hurts mothers by excusing men from caregiving. When the Huggies commercial suggests that men need only take care of their child for five days to give mom a much deserved break, they imply that it is mom's job to take care of the baby full-time and that dad is only there as a temporary--and inadequate--relief. This demonstrates to mothers that they can't really take a break. They shouldn't leave for a night out with their friends because they never know what their incompetent husbands might be doing to their children while they're gone. It also places a social responsibility on mothers to constantly oversee the caregiving so that even if they have a husband/partner who takes on caregiving responsibilities, they must constantly approve of it, placing them in the role of manager-helper rather than equal caregiving partners.

Beyond Cultural Myths
So, what's the big deal? So guys who take care of their kids get teased a little by their buddies? So women who want to work outside the home are side-eyed for abandoning their children? If they just deal with it, people will eventually stop, right? Toughen up. A little criticism never killed anyone.

If it was just abstract criticism, I'd still think it was awful, but it wouldn't push me to encourage people to sign the petition. The truth is that abstract cultural norms affect our policies and procedures. Policies like maternity and paternity leave suffer when we continue to maintain a cultural vision of mothers as sole caregivers and men as sole breadwinners. When this vision doesn't match reality, the lack of resources can make it hard for families to share their responsibilities the way they need to.

So, please, tell Huggies that portraying all fathers as incompetent and neglectful is not okay. Tell them that you won't be buying their products until they stop with these damaging stereotypes. Sign the petition and let them know. Go to their Facebook page, send them a tweet @Huggies, and make your voice heard.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No, Really Huggies, What do You Think of Dads?

So, at first glance, I'd think that a Huggies campaign that shows fathers taking a hands-on role in the caretaking of small children is a good thing.

But upon closer look, I think Huggies "Nominate a Dad" campaign is actually pretty awful. The promo declares that Huggies needs help proving that their products are best "by putting them to the ultimate test. . . Dad."

The implication is that dad is so incompetent that if Huggies will work for him, they will work for anyone--you know, like any of those "normal" diaper users who don't have a penis.

You can watch a video promoting the concept here (sorry, it's a Facebook video and not embeddable). In it, they explain that they are putting their products to the "ultimate test" by leaving "dads [dramatic pause] alone with their babies [dramatic pause] for five days!" What?! But the mayhem? The horror? The tragedy? What father could possibly care for his own offspring for five whole days?! That's almost a week! That's like .0008% of the eighteen years of childhood!

I wouldn't normally embed such a low quality video, but I can't find a better version (if you find one, let me know) and you really have to see this video to get the full effect:

Here, you can hear the general premise for the "ultimate test" of "dads alone with their babies" in the introduction (with a voice over by a woman, interestingly). Here, this "test" consists of dads avoiding diaper changes through the "big game" including those "unexpected double overtimes." It shows dads bouncing their babies and demonstrating how swollen with urine their children's diapers are as they stare past them to the television screen. 

That's right. Leave your children at home with dad, and they'll be neglected for hours on end so your man can watch the all-important game. But don't worry, Huggies has you covered by preventing leaks during this willful dismissal of your child's basic needs. Not a drop of that urine soaking into your child's sensitive skin will leak out onto your couch or--heaven forbid--dad's bouncing knee. They're that good.

I won't be buying any Huggies products after seeing this campaign. If you'd like to tell Huggies what you think about it, you can head over to their Facebook wall or tweet them at @Huggies.

Update: I wrote a follow-up post and encourage people to sign this petition

Monday, February 27, 2012

Individualism v. Collectivism: The Victim-Blaming Edition

A St. Louis nightclub held a beauty contest last week titled "Battle of the Complexions." Here's the promo:

The Crunk Feminist Collective has a great post on the contest looking at just how destructive it is. In particular, the post examines what impact a contest like this has on a greater sense of community:

In these moments black girls turned women forget about the beauty and diversity of skin tones in the family, they dismiss their light or dark skinned sister or best friend, and find themselves needing to prove their worth—their beauty—on a stage where only one can win, and in fact everyone loses.   Why does one person’s beauty have to be at the expense of someone else’s?
Several of the commenters on the Daily Mail place the culpability for this performance on the women who participate. This anonymous comment is representative:

If the women want to compete that's their problem, they should have more respect and not agree to take part in things like this.
It reminded me of some of the conversations following Pete Hoekstra's Debbie-Spend-it-Now fallout.

The ad, which aired during the Super Bowl, features actress Lisa Chan speaking in stereotypical broken English and thanking Hoekstra's opponent for spending so much money that the US government must borrow more from China and give Chinese citizens American jobs. The critical response to the ad was overwhelmingly negative and pointed out its blatant racism. Some of that criticism was heaped on the actress who participated, allowing her physical image and voice to stand in for a racial stereotype. 

Lisa Chan, a San Francisco resident and former Miss California competitor, has since apologized, calling her decision to participate in the ad a "mistake" and "not in any way representative of who [she is]."

However, at the center of this controversy rests a whole lot of victim blaming. As Justine Gonzalez points out in this post, it's not our place to force survivors of domestic violence to behave in the way we'd prefer:

We live in a victim-blaming society. If Rihanna isn’t getting blasted on Twitter for ‘causing’ Chris Brown to hit her, bloggers are getting mad that she’s not speaking out about the violence. If people aren’t infuriated at her singing about bondage, they are mad that she’s even in the same room as Chris Brown, nonetheless making a song with him. 
Rihanna has actively rejected the image of victim and I respect that about her. She is a young woman who is exploring her sexuality through her music like many artists have done before her. As a woman and especially as a survivor of domestic violence, she isn’t obligated to sing about self-empowerment. It would be nice to have an advocate with such influence on the younger generations of women but it is as much of an injustice to require her to do so.
I'm inclined to agree with that point of view, though it is complicated by an earlier quote from Rihanna (following images of her vacationing with Brown a few weeks after the assault) featured in the Colorlines article:
“When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that . . . I couldn’t be held responsible for telling them to go back. Even if Chris never hit me again, who’s to say their boyfriend won’t kill these girls. These are young girls and … I just didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on these girls live until that happened. It was a wake-up call for me - big time."
Does that change anything? Does Rihanna recognizing and publicly declaring herself to be a role model for young girls give her an extra dose of responsibility?

I'm not sure of the answer to those questions, but I am sure that things like complexion-based beauty contests, racist political attacks, and the prevalence of domestic violence are bad for our society as a collective. These individuals who participate in these systems are products of that collective society, but they--just like each of us--are also producers of it. While there may be a grain of truth that their individual decisions are part of the problem (as they do, ultimately, contribute to the collective culture), it is almost certainly not the largest part of the problem.

Sure, there would be no Battle of the Complexions without the women willing to participate, but they weren't the ones who printed promo fliers, made a promotional video, purchased space in the night club, and created the concept for the event (promoted as a Black History Month celebration, of all things).

Without a willing actress who identified as Chinese, Hoekstra's ad would have been a lot harder to pull off, but Chan was not the one who wrote it, filmed it, edited it, or financed its placement during the Super Bowl.

Yes, Rihanna's collaboration with Chris Brown may send the wrong message to young girls about the acceptability of domestic violence, but not nearly as clear of a message as the perpetration of that violence sends in the first place. She did not give herself that black eye.

I'm all about turning a critical eye onto the way we promote negative societal norms, but turning a critical eye cannot mean blaming the victim to give ourselves a pass. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Helpless Generation? A Response to Mickey Goodman

I just read "Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Children?" by Mickey Goodman over at HuffPo. The basic argument is that Gen Y students are self-centered, overly dependent upon their helicopter parents, and strangers to failure.

Rescue helicopter
From odolphie

She sums it up with four major problems: 1) telling these kids to dream big has left them unable to recognize the small steps it takes to get there 2) these kids have heard they're special without that specialness being attached to any qualities 3) these kids grew up with "every comfort" and now expect instant gratification and 4) these kids focus on happiness as a goal instead of the fulfilled life that produces happiness.

Then she offers some solutions including letting kids fail when they're young, balancing autonomy and responsibility, and not doing children's homework for them.

I'm not saying that I'm against Goodman's entire argument. She opens her article up with some stories of entitled children: a girl who calls her mother in the middle of a college class when she receives a C- and the mother demands to speak to the teacher, a kid who was accompanied by a parent on a job interview and the parent is upset that the kid didn't get the job. As someone who teaches college students, I've had some encounters that left me nodding my head as I read this section.

I once had a student who missed class nine times in the first half of the semester (which is technically enough to fail for attendance alone). His midterm F woke him up and he worked really hard the second half of the semester. Then he cussed me out and threatened to get his parents involved when he ended up with a B- for the year. He argued that his A work later in the semester should cancel out his F work at the beginning. Sigh.

But I do have an issue with Goodman's assertion that all Gen Yers are recipients of this overprotection and entitlement.

Technically, my husband and I are Gen Y. The article defines it as being born between 1984 and 2002. We were born in 1985.

We were talking after looking at this article and remarked on how this has very little in common with our upbringings. We were certainly encouraged when we were young, but we were never led to believe that we couldn't fail and we were never led to believe that success was a guarantee. We are both first-generation college students, and our successes were celebrated, but not seen as a given. And I cannot even imagine a situation in which my parents would have done my homework for me.

But maybe since we are so early on the spectrum we didn't get the full brunt of this helicopter parenting phenomenon. Still, I work with dozens of students every day. For every student who demands I give them an A when they miss nine classes, there is a student who is working so hard it makes my heart ache.

I've met students who are in college against their parents wishes because their parents see college as a waste of time. They want these students back home working in the family business instead of out chasing some pipe dream, even when those students are getting straight A's and doing graduate-level research as sophomores. I am not exaggerating.

I've met students whose parents are caring, but who grew up in such poverty that helicopter parenting was simply not a possibility. I've met students whose parents worked three jobs and were rarely home, students whose parents were also raising nieces and nephews and couldn't helicopter for lack of physical resources, students whose parents' definition of "dream big" meant staying out of prison, where many of the children from the neighborhood ended up.

I've also met students whose parents were not caring--parents who ignored their children or abused them. For these students, college is an escape, a fresh start.

And I've met plenty of students whose circumstances were not extreme, but who were taught the value of hard work and that success was no guarantee. I've had many students who approach me after getting a D and say not "how dare you?" but "how can I do better?"

All that to say that Goodman is probably pointing to a real phenomenon, but pretending that it is "a generation of helpless children," focuses only on a narrow segment of the American population. Perhaps this phenomenon is more pronounced among suburban, affluent families (though I'd be willing to bet there's more variation there than we think) but I do not think this model of parenting is very common outside of that demographic, and acting as if that narrow segment makes for a whole "generation" pushes the rest of us into invisibility.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What Chrysler and Chipotle Tell Us About Ethical Consumption

I tend to point out the negative in advertisements. Maybe I'm just a grouchy pessimist. Maybe it's just easier to point out negatives. 

Whatever it is, I'm setting that aside to look at two commercials through a different lens. 

First is the famous Chrysler commercial from the 2011 Super Bowl:

This ad garnered a lot of praise. It won an Emmy for best commercial of 2011 and scored five awards at the Cannes Lions 58th International Festival of Creativity. It was widely hailed as a successful attempt to re-brand Chrysler and has been attributed for increased sales, especially of the Chrysler 200 featured in the ad. 

Next is the recent ad from Chipotle:

This ad first aired during the Grammys this year. Though it has been the subject of some controversy from agricultural groups who don't like their portrayal, it has largely been hailed as a success and is enjoying many views with positive feedback. 

Both of these ads deserve thorough rhetorical analyses in their own right. The Chrysler ad is a remarkably well thought-out and masterfully executed display of rhetorical tropes. From the use of the hand imagery as synecdoche for America's work ethic to the choice of Eminem as a metaphor for Detroit (and Detroit as a metaphor for America) to the style of the narrator's gravelly, everyman voice to the combination of Eminem's angry, defiant rap music with the classy, moving music of the choir, this ad delivers. 

Likewise, the Chipotle ad does an excellent job of using simplicity to break down a complex argument. Choosing stop animation cartoon makes what happens to the pigs possible to show without distracting from their argument (you couldn't have shown this ad with real pigs in real factories without turning it into a completely different message). The choice of Willie Nelson and the lyrical selection of Coldplay's "The Scientist" are superb. The use of the farmer as a stand-in for Americans that allows the viewer to take responsibility for changing the future of farming and consuming without having to feel guilty for the past is a brilliant move (because guilt makes people defensive, and defensive people don't buy your products or listen to your message). 

All that aside, though, I am most interested in what these ads indicate about consumership and public ethos. In both of these ads, the primary narrative has nothing to do with the product. The story of the Chrysler ad is the story of an American city that has been written off as a failing has-been that comes back to prosperity through the American dream of hardwork and ingenuity. The story of the Chipotle ad is a farmer who embraces scientific advancements and gets caught up in a whirlwind of rapid changes that ultimately leaves him depressed and without control over the highly technical (and morally questionable) process of farming until he decides to do something about it. Both of these ads feature a prominent protagonist (Eminem-as-Detroit/the farmer) who stand up to adversity (recession/technology) that works against their moral imperative (hard work/sustainability). Ultimately, these final moral imperatives become the overarching themes of the commercials. We recognize this problem, but we--just like the protagonist--can overcome by embracing our morals. 

But what does that have to do with the viewer? Assuming the viewer is not a farmer or a rags-to-riches rap star, there's little that s/he can do to enter this story, to be a part of the change. But the ads give them an in. Buy the Chrysler 200. Eat at Chipotle. You too can be part of this transformation, and all it takes is opening your wallet, making the right purchases. 

Sure, this message is harnessed to directly benefit the companies that produced these ads. That's evidenced by the high economic investment they were willing to make in creating these ads and then buying time in very costly venues to premier them. But it does something else, too. 

Ads like these make the connection between purchase decisions and the larger culture apparent. I'm not judging the merit of the claims (I don't know if buying a Chrysler 200 actually helps Detroit (and thus America) recover or if buying Chipotle actually helps sustainable farming overcome big agricultural businesses), but I do think the point that these commercials make is a very important one that we don't think about often enough. 

What you buy impacts the world around you. Consume ethically.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gender Stereotyping with a Side of Product Promotion

I know that my pop culture junkie-dom (junkie-hood? junkie-ness? addiction.) suggests otherwise, but I actually don't watch television very often. We don't have cable (we're some of those Netflix defectors) and we have pretty busy schedules.

I normally run around the track at lunch, but today when I got there the treadmills were open (a rarity). So I hopped on one and stuck my headphones in to listen to the TV. Now, I'm running and Let's Make a Deal is on, so it's not like I'm really in my scholarly critic zone. Nonetheless, the commercials were so blatantly full of gender stereotyping that I really couldn't ignore it.

First I saw a commercial for Fiber One 90 Calorie Brownies:

In it, a woman pushes aside a bouncer in front of a red curtain and goes through to join a horde of women dancing around with boxes of brownies. The voiceover tells us "They've been off-limits to dieters since time began. Not anymore." When the woman bites into one of those brownies, her face lights up and the scene around her moves in slow motion. Meanwhile, a couple of young men peer through the red curtain at the dancing scene with looks of amused confusion. 

So, what's going on in this ad? Well, the bouncer who's keeping this woman out of the fun-filled brownie rave is represented by a very muscular, hyper masculine white man. All of the women dancing in the brownie room meet the same narrow standards of beauty: they're thin (though, admittedly, more realistically thin than many portrayals); most have long, flowing hair, and--as far as I could tell--they're all white (at the very least all of the prominently featured women are white). 

So, here's a traditionally attractive woman who has been denying herself brownies "since time began" to meet those standards of beauty. That denial has been maintained by a hyper masculine bouncer (representative of a male dominance on those standards). While her casual pushing aside of this male gatekeeper might be seen as a power play, she's not actually working against the standards to keep her in her place; in fact, those standards are the whole selling point of this product. "Don't eat a brownie! My god! Oh, it's only 90 calories? Go ahead." 

Let me ask you something. If a pre-packaged, foil-wrapped, 90-calorie brownie facsimile is good enough to make the world move in slow motion and literally light up your face, then how good is a real brownie? And if they're that good, why can't a woman (or a man--I'm not discriminating little curtain peekers, go ahead and come in) have one now and then?

So, as I'm running and telling myself that was a pretty narrow portrayal of women, I'm met with this gem for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese:

Here we see a bickering couple and then a little boy on a couch informs us that "Dad's in the doghouse again" because he brought home a client for dinner without telling his wife. She, being the perfect model of domesticity and grace, is prepared. She whips up a box of Homestyle Mac n' Cheese that she keeps on hand for just such occasions and they sit through an awkward, tense dinner. The little boy then turns to the camera and whispers "Dad really screwed this up."

What a horrible promotion of gender stereotypes from both sides. Women are shrewish nags who have to keep the home together while their absent-minded provider husbands bumble around and mess things up. The little boy doesn't seem upset by his parents' fight. In fact, he seems to take joy in seeing them so miserable, indicating that this family dynamic isn't very healthy. 

Finally, what's the selling point supposed to be? Always keep Kraft on hand so that you can have sub-par, awkward dinners with guests who clearly don't want to be witness to your Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque meltdown? Not selling it. 

On a plus note, Kotex Natural Balance has an ad that parodies traditional maxi-pad ads by laughing off the notion of women on their periods gleefully exercising in all-white clothes and pointing to all all-male panel of "experts" while sarcastically saying  "these maxi pad wizards really get me." 

Then again, that ad might be a little too prescient for comfort:

All-male panel at the hearing on birth control 

How My View on Affirmative Action in Higher Ed Has Evolved


This week, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear the Fisher v. Texas case, a case about affirmative action in higher education. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, alleges that the Texas public university school system discriminated against her because of her race when she was denied admission. 

Currently, under the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, institutions of higher education are not allowed to use race as a point-based factor in direct admission decisions, but they can use race as one of the contributing factors in choosing applicants to ensure diversity.

Reading about this made me reflect on my own feelings about affirmative action in higher education which have been complicated.

First of all, I work for a program that uses race-based selection (which I've written about before). The program I work for (which I love, and whole-heartedly believe in) helps students who are first-generation college students (so neither parent has a degree) and who meet certain income guidelines. It also takes a smaller percentage of students who are from racial groups underrepresented in higher education. Often, these populations overlap, but we do have some students in our program who meet the underrepresented requirement but not the first-generation one.

Since most of our students are first-generation, low-income students, our work focuses primarily on serving this population. We aim to make up for the cultural gap in knowledge about the inner workings of college systems and how to succeed. Having been a first-generation, low-income college student myself, I empathize with these difficulties. I was always a successful student, but learning how to navigate the collegiate landscape was difficult. I had no one to talk to about admissions decisions, scholarships, or career paths. My family supported me in the goal of getting into college, but no one had any idea what to do after I met that goal.

Some have suggested that an economic-based affirmative action (privileging first-generation, low-income applicants) would still help racially underrepresented applicants without having to use race-based selection. At one point, I thought this was a good idea. But I've changed my mind.

These letters from New York Times readers over such a suggestion point to some of the benefits and problems with using economic-based selection criteria rather than race-based ones. Here are some of the problems:

Economic disadvantage and race may overlap, but they are not the same. Substituting economic-based criteria may ignore the fundamental, equality-based reasoning behind affirmative action.
"Poverty is not a proxy for race, and to pretend that it is ignores the initial foundation for affirmative action: to correct for demonstrable biases against minorities in attaining higher education. Colleges and universities should be engines of social change, equalizing students (as much as possible) across old lines of race, class and gender."-Brian Farkas  
 Race-based affirmative action aims to address racial inequality, and racial inequality (regardless of socioeconomic status) persists. 

"The recurring debate over race-based affirmative action often avoids the central question: Has structural racism in society diminished to such an extent that social engineering mechanisms like affirmative action are no longer necessary?
Unfortunately it has not, and there is ample data to support this conclusion. Recent studies confirm that unconscious racism continues to be infused in nearly every aspect of society. Every student of color, whether inner-city or suburban, well off or poor, continues to face this burden."-Victor Goode
My reason for believing that economic-based selection criteria doesn't fill the same role is connected to those two reasons, and it came to me not through reading and reflection, but through real-life illustration. 

A few years ago, some horribly racist incidents took hold of the campus where I work. There were lynch threats made, racial epithets were casually thrown about, and the atmosphere became increasingly tense. Some of the more formal efforts to ease concerns seemed to backfire; instead of demonstrating an overall space of tolerance and acceptance--one that would have relegated those incidents to the status of isolated and unwelcome--much of the community at large came across as well meaning but out-of-touch. 

Working in the role that I do, I was in close contact with many students of color who felt personally attacked and even unsafe. Some considered transferring. Some were angry and wanted to find a better course of action for the university as a whole. 

I know that this was only a small part of the overall process that eventually worked toward rectifying those wrongs--a process that can be attributed almost entirely to the dedicated and equality-minded members of the student body who took it upon themselves to make their voices heard and change the campus culture--but I think that my program helped those students. This program gave students a space where they did not have to feel out of place. Though the program is made up of students from multiple racial backgrounds (including white students), it is overwhelmingly a place of inclusion and acceptance, a space where individual effort is bolstered by community support. 

Economic disparity had nothing (at least directly) to do with those incidents. Those incidents grew out of racial intolerance. I agree with Farkas' comment above. Universities should be "engines of social change," and creating an atmosphere where intolerance is tackled and dismantled is a core component of that change. Students from many different backgrounds face a myriad of obstacles in attaining equal opportunities. Yes, economic-based initiatives address some of those concerns for some of those students, but race-based obstacles require race-based solutions. 

I dream of a day when race-based affirmative action will truly be unnecessary because that day can only come when racial equality is a reality.     

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Remember way back when I said one of my New Year's goals was to redesign this blog? Well, I'm finally getting around to it. I'm going to be testing a few things out, so if things break, it's because I don't know what I'm doing. Hopefully I'll be back soon!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Contraceptive War, or, What Year is It Again?

A friend sent me a link to this post from the Feronia Project and suggested that I blog about it. I've been wanting to say something about the ridiculous spectacle that's been made of of women's rights and reproductive health over the past week or so, but I haven't really been able to wrap my mind around it. Plus, many other writers have done a great job of summing up much of the insanity. In case you've missed it, here's a (probably incomplete) round-up:

  1. Kelly over at How I Learned to Wear a Dress talks about watching the Issa panel on "religious freedom" over whether or not religiously affiliated companies should be required to offer birth control coverage to their employees. This panel discussing contraception coverage had no women. You can also see some responses to the panel at the Twitter hashtag #Issacircus
  2. Rick Santorum, who actually has a shot at the Republican nomination, has said that women might not belong on the front lines of combat because of their "emotions involved," suggested that women who are fulfilled in work outside of the home have been brainwashed by radical feminists, and denounced all prenatal testing as a horrific effort to cull people with disabilities through abortion.
  3. A proposed law in Virginia would require transvaginal ultrasounds against women's will in order to obtain an abortion. As Feministe explains, that's rape.
  4. Personhood amendments, like the one in Oklahoma, are placing unequal focus on women's responsibility in reproduction and forcing them to deal with obstacles to their reproductive health and freedom without adding obstacle's to men's. Amendments like the "spilled semen" one point out this inequality.
So, back to the Feronia Project post. In it, we're reminded that women's freedoms are not that old. In fact, they're a pretty recent phenomenon:
They say we can look to the past to predict the future. If this is the case, I assert that women’s “stronghold” in exercising their power and autonomy is only a blip in our timeline that can be easily wiped away by legislation riddled with “traditional” values. The FDA only approved the first birth control pill in 1957, around the time my grandmother was getting married. There are women around us who remember what it was like before we had the reproductive freedoms we do now.
I want to say that that's fear mongering and alarmist. I want to say that it's ridiculous to think that we could backslide so drastically on an issue that directly affects half of the population and indirectly affects every single one of us.  But I can't say those things. 

The past week has shown me too many people in power who are batting around basic freedoms like a cat with a mouse. 

As the Feronia Project post posits:
If I’m left without contraception, how can I plan my pregnancies? If I can’t plan my pregnancies, how can I plan my life? If I can’t plan my life, how can I own my life? If I don’t own my life, who does? Riddle me that one, Newt, Rick, Mitt.
My own views on abortion are complicated and certainly don't fit into a neat label of pro-choice or pro-life. My own life actually falls into some pretty traditional roles. I am married. I was married when I got pregnant, by choice. Sure, I work outside the home and pursue educational goals, but does that make me so radical as to be outside of the constructed reality that we're operating within when we have these conversations? 

Control over my reproductive health is an imperative part of my life. It was an imperative part of my life before having a child, and it is an imperative part of my life now that I have one. I am a better mother and wife because of my ability to plan my life. How someone could work so hard to derail that simple and life-changing reality is beyond me. Truly. Beyond me. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Parenting Myth(o)s: Just You Wait

When I was pregnant I wrote a couple of posts about maintaining the mythos of motherhood. Basically, I noticed that part of the cultural norm surrounding pregnancy seems to be complaining about it a lot. That's not to say that it doesn't suck sometimes (it does), but it just seemed interesting to me how much we were encouraged to point out how much it sucked: encouraged by media, by friends, and--perhaps most of all--other pregnant women.

I think that some of this might to be to combat the potential trivializing of motherhood in general and pregnancy in particular. Pointing out those swollen ankles, annoying doctor's visits, the constant need to pee, etc. ensures that other people will recognize the difficulties of pregnancy. Pregnancy is a physically, emotionally, and culturally taxing job--but it can also be thankless.

I'm no longer pregnant, but I've noticed that this mythos maintenance extends to parenting as well.

Posts like this one from STFU, Parents, this follow-up post on the subject of mothers who expect special treatment, and debates over banning children from restaurants or airplanes all illustrate the problematic intersection between parents' and non-parents' perspectives on the world. Parenting can be all-consuming, and it can make you recognize that the lens of raising children makes you look at the world distinctly differently than those around you--or than you did in the past. Sometimes this is an inspiring and refreshing view; other times it is a frustrating feeling of isolation.

And I think it's that feeling of frustration and isolation that leads us to make sure that we're pointing out the negatives of parenting. It can range from a snarky response on a Facebook post ("You think you're tired now? Just wait til you have a colicky baby!") to a full-blown group rant about the horrors of diaper changes.

I'm not judging, and I'm guilty of it, too. I'm sure it even serves a purpose--community building,  legitimizing our efforts as parents. (For the record, I also don't think this is limited just to parents. Us grad students like to complain about our plight--when my husband gets together with lawyer friends they lament their legal woes. I think that group complaining can play an important role in bonding.)

But this game of one-upmanship can get exhausting. When I was pregnant, the slightest negative comment would often be met with a "just-you-wait." I'd say my back was sore. "Oh, just you wait. Once the baby gets here you'll be so exhausted you'll wish you just had a sore back."

And once my daughter was born, a complaint about--say--her refusal to sleep would be met with another one. "Oh, just you wait until she's mobile!"

Now that she's a toddler, if I say how frustrating it is to try to change her diaper when she's doing jumping jacks on the changing table, "Oh, just you wait until she can talk back."

I can imagine this goes on forever "Just you wait until she's a teenager." "Just you wait until she goes to college." "Just you wait. . ."

I didn't talk about this much at the time, but some of these comments in the early days of my daughter's life sent me into a near panic. She was jaundiced and had to go back to the hospital after her initial release. It was terrifying and overwhelming. There I was, two days postpartum and still recovering physically, sleeping on a hospital cot and watching my tiny new baby squirm under those eerie blue lights. Then, once we got home, she nursed constantly. She nursed for forty-five minutes at a time every two hours. She was physically attached to me almost half of the day--literally. I was exhausted. I missed my job. I felt really alone.

And whenever I tried to talk to someone about it, all I could hear was those "just-you-waits." I'm sure that people said other things. Encouraging things. Lovely things. But those just-you-waits loomed large. They made me feel like if I couldn't hack it now, I was doomed. It only gets harder.

I'm happy to say that isn't the case (or at least it isn't the case for me). For me, parenting a toddler is a lot easier than parenting an infant. It's not a breeze. It takes work. And I still get frustrated and overwhelmed from time to time, but having a mobile kid who can interact with me is way easier than feeling like this tiny, immobile, completely dependent creature is waiting for me to attend to her every whim.

All that to say to anyone who might be feeling overwhelmed at the moment, "Just you wait. Things will change. It will get better."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

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

Things that made me happy, sad, and perplexed, feel free to add to the list in the comments.

The Good

  • Republican Representative Maureen Walsh's speech to the Washington House supporting gay marriage:

  • Over at Good Enough Mother, the black mother of a biracial daughter talks about getting a call from her 72-year-old mother-in-law asking her, "Uh Hill, are you going to raise the baby Black or White?" Her question was to determine which doll to buy in the store, and the fact that she was considerate enough to ask a question about race when she didn't know the answer rather than being too uncomfortable to approach it inspired the mother. She reflects on her own childhood dolls that were often white and made her feel "a little like the nanny" because she didn't relate to them. It made me smile because it reminded me of a wonderful birthday present my daughter got from a  great family friend: a biracial doll that came from Pattycake Doll

"Even if home birth was a real option for a segment of the population in the US, we still need to work on improving hospital care and outcomes! Fewer women would be opting out of hospital births if they didn’t feel their births would be overly medically managed to the point of introducing new risks from medications and surgery. Hospitals have much to offer in terms of emergency care, and a lot less to offer a low-risk mom who would prefer a birth with few interventions."
The Bad

  • Santorum says that women women in the front lines of combat concern him because of "other types of emotions that are involved." Elsewhere, he had this to say about prenatal testing:
"One of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America," Santorum said. "Why? Because it saves money in health care. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society."
  • The Huffington Post reported on "Thinspiration" blogs, anorexia-promoting blogs that are popular among some groups of teenage girls. 
  • Some infant formula has tested with arsenic levels up to six times higher than is allowable in drinking water, prompting some to call for arsenic regulations in food, which currently don't exist in the U.S.  

The Curious

  • The American Life League has a (in my opinion, hilarious) video demonstrating Planned Parenthood's real agenda of hooking kids on sex through the "gateway drug" of masturbation and cartoon penises. (Video probably NSFW.)

What have you been reading lately?

Friday, February 17, 2012

New Report on Interracial Marriage in the U.S.

There's a new Pew Poll report on interracial marriage in America. The report is very involved and looks at a variety of different measures. Some of their key findings:

  • Interracial marriages are on the rise. About 15% of new marriages are between people who identify as different races, compared to 6.7% in 1980.
  • States in the West have higher rates of interracial marriages (22%) than the South (14%), Northeast (13%), or Midwest (11%)
  • On the surface, people who "marry out" have similar educational and economic attainment as those who "marry in," but differences arise when looking at the racial identification of the pairings (for instance, a white/Asian couple has a higher median income ($70,952) than a white/white couple ($60,000) or an Asian/Asian couple ($62,000).

The part that was most interesting to me was the Public Opinion section

"Nearly six-in-ten liberals (59%) think that more people of different races marrying each other has been a better change for our society, nearly half (48%) of moderates agree, compared with less than one-third (32%) of conservatives who say so."

Of the questions designed to gauge public opinion on the impact of social decisions on the larger society, interracial dating is viewed favorable by the most people and unfavorable by the least people.

The percentage of people who say that interracial marriage is acceptable is at an all-time high (83%). Among adults ages 18-29, that rate is 93%. It is lowest among adults 65 and older (67%).

Does anyone know what caused the huge jump from 1990 to 1991? I'm really curious.

The saddest finding was the prejudice within subcategories of some of the findings. I was especially frustrated--though not particularly surprised--to see that people were more willing to accept their family member dating someone who was Asian or Hispanic than they were to see their family member dating someone who was black. 

Also, since these items were not asked of people who were of that particular race, these responses demonstrate that people of color are more likely to accept interracial marriage of their group members with white people than the other way around. 

So, what's the hope for the future? If 93% of young adults find interracial marriage acceptable, what will a survey like this look like in twenty years? Will they maintain that point of view into later adulthood? Will their children adopt their open-mindedness? I am optimistic that these trends will continue and that interracial marriage will be viewed with more and more acceptance. Still, my optimism is a little crushed when I think about it a broader context:

As this question posed to Yo, Is This Racist? points out, perhaps the saddest part is that this is an issue that need to be polled in the first place.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

PETA: An Equal Opportunity Exploiter

Perhaps you've seen or heard about the new PETA ad promoting veganism that suggests violent, painful sex that hurts women is somehow a good thing:

The woman in the ad is shown in a neck brace and has trouble walking. She gets home and takes off her coat to reveal that she's only wearing her underwear. Her boyfriend asks if she's "feeling better" after he painfully wounded her during sex. PETA suggests they can prevent accidents like this from occurring by giving you advice on how to go "go vegan" safely. This obviously tongue-in-cheek phrase ignores the fact that the ad centers on demonstrating a man's increased sexual aggressiveness as a great thing, regardless of what that means for the woman on the receiving end of that aggression. 

I wasn't even going to comment on this video because (as I've talked about before) PETA's continued degradation of women has ensured that I won't be taking anything they have to say seriously anytime soon. 

But then I watched last night's Daily Show and saw this:

Not content to just completely ignore women's rights in their campaigns, PETA demonstrates that they are equally willing to exploit racial injustice for media attention. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of five SeaWorld orcas that said they should be freed under the 13th Amendment's abolishment of slavery.

As Wyatt Cenac cleverly displays through mockery (around the 4:00 mark), this argument is ridiculous. (Cenac points out that the PETA representative herself has a dog who she walks on a leash, which would clearly be a violation of her dog's freedom. He then brings in his lawyer to file a complaint on behalf of all of the animals pictured on PETA's website because they were photographed without their consent.)

While I appreciate the humor Cenac used to derail this argument, it's not enough to make me ignore how insulting the lawsuit (which was thrown out) was to begin with. It belittles the impact of slavery and makes a mockery of the countless people who died under that oppressive mark on our history. It also trivializes attempts to alleviate current racial inequalities and attempts to dehumanize people who were slaves and--by extension--people of color by equating them with animals.

I am against cruelty to animals, and I support legitimate attempts to address those concerns. I see nothing legitimate in what PETA does other than to support current systems of racial and gender oppression.

Another Day, Another Problematic Facebook Meme

I've seen the above image floating around on Facebook and it reminded me of some other problematic Facebook memes that have been going around.

This picture has been circulating and appears to be a call for women to accept their bodies regardless of whether they fit the "ideal" or not, but as this blogger points out, the image still portrays women's bodies as objects deemed worthy based on physical ideal (especially the one marked "Men's Ideal Size") and privileges a very narrow view of beauty: white models; long, flowing hair; hour-glass figures. In short, it doesn't really accomplish what it seems to accomplish on first glance.

Likewise, Sociological Images took on the Marilyn meme that ostensibly promotes a healthy body image. They point out that we are still objectifying women's bodies and we're still valuing one type of body at the expense of another (in this case, we're pointing to thin women as unattractive). We're also referring to women as a "this," using synecdoche in a way that makes a woman's physical appearance stand in place of her self as a whole person.

So, let's go back to the photo that I want to take a closer look at:

What's going on here? This image has a lot of similarities with the Marilyn one. It uses nostalgia to harken back to "better times." It compares people in different eras in similar, but not identical, poses. It uses comparison to make a critical evaluation of society's norms. And, like the Marilyn meme, this image may at first appear to be taking a positive stance, but is actually damaging.

First of all, both images use nostalgia in a way that ignores historical context. As Sociological Images points out:
Marilyn Monroe was, to put it mildly, very sad, very often. She was a sex symbol, and thus, stopped existing as human being, a regular girl. Almost everything that fucked up Marilyn’s later life had to do with being “adored” by men. Men used her, or deified her (and that’s a hard come-down for those dudes when they found a human being in their bed the morning after). Political brothers purportedly passed her around like a toy. Conventional wisdom, political conspiracy aside, has it that Monroe killed herself. Being “adored by thousands of men” didn’t stop her demons from consuming her.
Glorifying her physical image without taking into account what that physical image meant for her life as a real, actual human being is an oversimplification that ignores reality.

Likewise, looking at the image of those black men from the 1950's and placing it next to an image from contemporary America ignores the bleak reality of racial interactions during the '50's. Yes, those men on the left are better dressed, but they also lived in a time when schools were segregated, black Americans were relegated to the back of busses, racist practices like redlining limited options on housing and mobility, and the threat of racial violence was a potent presence. To ignore that reality oversimplifies the image and removes its context.

Finally, just as the image of Marilyn and the three women of different sizes still limits women's value to their physical appearance, these juxtaposed images of the black men limits their value to their clothing. Clothing can be an important form of non-verbal communication. It is unlikely, for instance, that those men on the right are going to get hired if they show up at a job interview in those outfits. However, just like all other kinds of communication, clothing is a fluid part of our expression and not a marker of our inherent identities. The way we choose to communicate is a rhetorical act, and it can be conscious or unconscious. It can be effective or ineffective. But it cannot stand in for our full character and sense of being.

These men are more than their clothes just as those women are more than their bodies. Reductionist perspectives that try to boil people down to an at-a-glance value judgment promote stereotypes and limit our abilities to see beyond them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Burlesque, Lady Gaga, and Sexuality: What's Feminist?

Fair warning, I'm about to ramble a lot. I know what you're thinking, "How is that different from any other thing you write?" Touché, hypothetical reader, but this post is going to be particularly rambly because I really haven't figured out what I think about this one. But what better reason to write than to figure out what I think? And to hear from all of you smart folks on the subject?

Can Burlesque Be Empowering to Women?

The Delphiad Blog has a post that starts by examining the claim that burlesque is "empowering" to women, moves into an exploration of a personal anecdote (visiting a nude beach with a boyfriend didn't go as he had planned) and ends with this declaration:
I can have fun when I want to, if I feel free, if I don’t feel pressured, if I do it for me first and if I don’t feel someone is shilling their agenda with ulterior motives that don’t mesh with my best interests. Whether this is the case with every instance of “fun” that gets pushed at women is another story. Only each and every woman can tell for herself, of course. 
I can see where yes, burlesque can exercise your imagination, involve your sense of play and perhaps help you claim or reclaim your body and sexual self when you need to do this, or just plain want to. 
That, indeed, is empowering. There are just so many things we get thrown at us that are not.In the end, no one can label me as a loser or a weakling for not embracing their definition of “fun”, “liberation” or “empowerment”, instead of respecting my choices and quite-considerable experience in deciding what, in fact, I truly consider “empowering”.
I agree with that conclusion, and I feel confident saying that women viewing their own bodies as sexy and enjoying expressions of that sexiness can be feminist. But I can't help but look at that conclusion and the introduction to the post as never-ending circles of a vicious cycle. In the beginning, the post had this to say:
My initial reaction, I admit, is to cringe and/or roll my eyes when I hear that word spoken in connection with anything that sounds so obviously centred around male pleasure. Let’s just say burlesque is one of those things… along with pole-dancing lessons; bunny ears; having a threesome you don’t really want, for the “higher purpose” of “liberating your sexuality”; watching lesbian porn with a boyfriend when you’re completely straight, etc.
Obviously, she started with this question and ended with some version of "but it can be empowering to an individual who finds it empowering" but we could just as easily start with that conclusion and end up with "but it isn't empowering to women who are pressured into it by societal standards."

From John-Pa

The problem becomes in distinguishing where societal standards and pressure end and individual desires and expression begin. And, to some extent, they don't begin and end. We are products of our society. I can't separate myself out from the culture that's shaped me. Even when I step into different cultural contexts, I am a product of my past experiences. The people I've known, the books I've read, the movies I've watched, the relationships I've had--that's all part of me. On the flip side, our culture is a product of us. The music we create, the blog posts we write, the words we say, the products we buy, the art we paint--those are all part of our culture. The question of "is burlesque feminist" is so damned frustrating because it's really a question of identity.

Yes, It Can Empower

Chloe Emmot has an interesting post over at The F Word that asks the same question: "Can burlesque be feminist?" Here, Emmot talks about her experiences in a burlesque class:
One of the first things I remember from class was being told that any negativity regarding our body image was not to be tolerated and that burlesque was about showing off your beauty, whatever your size, shape or colour. It may sound trite, but, as a young woman who, no matter how hard she tries, cannot fully escape the pressure to be thin and 'beautiful', a message that left me walking home noticing how my 'fat' thighs, stomach and bum wobbled - and felt so goddamn-sexy - is one worth celebrating. We were not taught to please men, we were taught to enjoy ourselves, to revel in our bodies, to enjoy our sexuality, the thrill of the tease and the sensation of being in the spotlight.
For her, then, burlesque was a way to claim authorship over her definition of sexy. While she admits to still having some reservations about burlesque (and its intertwinement with strip clubs and pornography), she ultimately believes that burlesque can be a way for women to decide what they think is sexy rather than always playing the part of what (they think) men think is sexy.

No, It Can't Empower

To be fair to this debate, I have to consider viewpoints like this one from Jill at I Blame the Patriarchy. She takes to task the notion that women can be claiming their own sexiness because she sees that "sexiness" as ultimately controlled and created by a patriarchal system of oppression:
Today’s feminist, empowered by all those articles on vibrators in Bust magazine, chooses choices of her own free will. These choices mirror her own unique sartorial, sexual, and philosophical personality. That these unique choices happen to align precisely with standard male porn fantasies, and that they are therefore rewarded with positive attention, is purely coincidental. 
Such a viewpoint is a luxury of youth. It is the great tragedy of the women’s liberation movement that fully-realized feminist consciousness is too rarely achieved by women who are still young and fit enough to take on Dude Nation in a knife fight. Too often, it’s only when a woman ages out of pornosity, and is too old to do anything but take pictures of cows, that she discovers what the world really thinks of her.
She goes so far as to decry femininity itself as degrading:
It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. 
Many of the comments on the post demonstrate that feminists (young and old alike) have ascribed to this viewpoint and recognize femininity as a degradation to women. At this point, we're clearly getting into the murky waters where second-wave and third-wave feminism clash.

Trading One Set of Rules for Another?

I see a mini-version of this debate play out in the toy crusades and gendering of children. While many people recognize that ascribing narrow gender roles to children through toys is problematic, the answers on how to deal with that problem are complicated.

The Fisher Price Brilliant Basics rattle teaches infant girls that diamond rings are most important.
In her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which critically examines "Princess Culture," Peggy Orenstein notices that her daughter was getting the message a little too clearly. Her daughter saw that her mom was reacting negatively to the princess paraphernalia lining the stores and interpreted it to mean that there was something wrong with glitter and pink and lace. Orenstein realized that her message needed to be more nuanced. The glitter wasn't the problem; the problem was the lack of other options. The problem was the way that cultural influences told little girls they had to have the glitter or run the risk of being ostracized by their peers. But isn't rejecting glitter in and of itself just as damaging? Isn't saying that you have to choose the non-glittered option or risk being ostracized by a group of people who see glitter as insulting just as limiting? What if you really, truly like glitter?

Of course, Jill's argument is that you can't really, truly like glitter. You are just programmed to like glitter because society tells you so. I'm not rejecting that argument out of hand, but doesn't that seem a little too narrow? There's no merit to glitter? Nothing redeemable? For anyone? Ever?

Patriarchal Bargaining 

And then (you knew there was going to be an "and then" didn't you?) there's this: "Lady Gaga's Patriarchal Bargain." Guest blogger Sonita Moss wrote in this article for Sociological Images that bounces off of Lisa Wade's look at "Serena Williams' Patriarchal Bargain."

A patriarchal bargain, according to Wade is defined as follows:
A patriarchal bargain is a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.  Williams is making a patriarchal bargain, exchanging her sex appeal for the heightened degree of fame and greater earning power we give to women who play by these rules (e.g., Kim Kardashian).  Don’t be too quick to judge; nearly 100% of women do this to some degree.
It's not quite "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but it's close. Something more like "if you can't beat 'em, trick 'em at their own game." The problem is that this doesn't do much to dismantle the oppression in place to begin with. In fact, because the women who are making these patriarchal bargains often do so to gain power and prestige, they are in positions of influence and may actually be furthering that oppression.

Moss explains how Lady Gaga falls into this system:

Throughout her body of work there is a thread of what we know all too well:  ass-shaking, barely-there nudity and conspicuous consumption, just in an offbeat fashion. Gaga is bonkers, but Gaga is sexy. Gaga is political and outspoken, Gaga is skinny and [often] blond.  Indeed, “Mother Monster” may uplift her fans because of her affinity for oddness, but lest we forget, she is a lady and must inhabit the flesh that adheres to gender norms and restrictions, she reminds us:
“I would rather die than have my fans see me without a pair of heels on. And that’s show business.”
If you want to ride the ride, you have to pay the price.  And that price is patriarchy.

Expression and Language

So, with all of those complicated views bouncing around in my head, I'm trying to figure out how I feel about this. I don't know the answer, but it does remind me of a different (and equally contentious) debate: the use of the n-word.

As you may know, I don't use the n-word. Ever. If it's in a quote (like in song lyrics or a book), I'll type the word, but in my own language I do not use it. I don't feel like I have the authorial rhetorical positioning. I don't have the ethos. The history of the word is too steeped in hate, violence, and degradation. I don't feel comfortable participating in it.

However, I also don't think it should be banned (like it was in this "symbolic" ban in NYC back in 2007). While some (like Richard Delgado, for instance) maintain that some words are always designed to wound, destined to be fighting words, that view ignores the fact that words do not have innate meanings. Words' meanings are created by the people who use them. Language is fluid, constantly changing, and overlapping. Finally, banning a word doesn't ban the thoughts, and the thoughts are what worry me. If the n-word were suddenly wiped from everyone's vocabularies, I have little hope that racism would be equally wiped from everyone's minds. After all, it was racism that created the most popular meaning of the n-word to begin with, not the other way around.

I feel like banning the n-word gives too much power to the people who have used it with negative connotations. While I don't suggest we ignore those connotations and the cultural realities surrounding the word (which is why I don't use it myself), I see negative effects from fixing that definition for all time, for saying that the word can never have any other possible use. When we do that, we give the people who have championed a racist use of the word immense power. No other word gets a fixed definition that never changes. Why should these people have the power to destroy a word forever? Why should these people get the position of permanent authorship? Doesn't that just imply that the current system of oppression is forever set? The people who wield the power over the n-word and its current meaning will always do so? I can't accept that.

I likewise can't accept that women are destined to always be objectified. If we say that burlesque or lingerie or stripping or pornography are always and inherently objectification, we give the patriarchal oppression that can make them objectifying too much power. We deny the opportunity for those expressions to have alternate authorship. We fix them in a time and space in a way that denies the fluid reality of human communication and give too much credence to oppression as it currently exists. The patriarchy doesn't have ownership over sexuality.


What do you think? Can burlesque be feminist? Have you participated in a patriarchal bargain? Am I participating in a patriarchal bargain by writing these words? Have I been had? Can't glitter be nice, too?