Sunday, December 29, 2013

Theme for 2014: Patience

A few months ago, I decided I wanted to join the roller derby. There was a small problem: I had never skated before. 

Not one to be deterred by such minor obstacles, I immediately signed up for roller skating classes (me, one other adult, and a room full of seven year olds), bought protective gear and a pair of skates, and will be joining next month. 

I took 18 hours of classes almost every semester of undergrad while working two jobs, had a baby in graduate school, and got married and bought a house before I turned 25. 

I'm a jump in with both feet kind of gal. Sometimes I can make a decision, realize it was a mistake, and fix it before you even notice that I acted. I move fast, and in many ways it has served me very well. 

But there are other ways that it has not. 

There are little ways. When I am trying to write a blog post or a assignment for my students and my browser is moving slowly, it can send me into a near fury. When I am trying to leave the house in the morning and my daughter is dawdling around talking to each of her stuffed animals in alphabetical order, I get twitchy with anxiety. 

There are also big ways. Sometimes I get so caught up in planning the next move that I forget to enjoy the move I just made. I'm so swept up in figuring out when is the right time to buy a new house that I don't decorate the one I'm in. I'm so fixated on mapping out articles I want to submit that I can't enjoy watching a movie for pleasure because I feel like it's time wasted. 

And sometimes when a deadline is far enough away, I lose interest completely. For instance, sometimes it's hard for me to keep my energy on finishing my PhD because I know the dissertation is going to take a while (especially since I'm working full time). 

What I need is to cultivate some patience. 

This article that I stumbled across earlier today talks about crafting New Year's themes instead of resolutions. They're more likely to stick because they allow for flexibility as the year happens, and the theme "should be a word that resonates with you and embodies something that has been missing from your daily life."

So, that's my word for 2014: patience. 

What's your theme for 2014? Do you have any tips on cultivating patience? 

Photo: tsoleau

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Can Tablets Be Our (Children's) Friends?

My husband and I got our daughter (three years old) a LeapPad 2 for Christmas. I feel a little torn about it.

On one hand, I'm a media lover. I consume media with a voracious appetite. I listen to music while I'm grading papers, listen to audio books while I'm running through the park, read Twitter feeds while I'm riding (not driving) on long car trips, and read good old-fashioned books daily. I love movies, music videos, and television, even when it's bad. I want to share my love for these things with my daughter because they are a big part of my life and our family. My husband and I have entire movies that we watch over and over again simply to make fun of them. It's like our own private, ever-changing Mystery Science Theater. We watch films and use them for springboards into long, philosophical conversations. We critique music together. Media is part of the fabric of our traditions, and I want my daughter in on them (in an age-appropriate way, of course).

At the same time, I recognize that even if I didn't love media so much, my daughter is growing up in an age where it is ubiquitous. She is growing up in a time where there are entire television networks dedicated to infants. There are Netflix options specifically for pre-literate children to navigate. Cell phones did not exist when I was a baby, but she could figure out how to swipe on my iPhone before she could walk. The times, they are a-changing. And, as I've written about before, I'm not so sure all the hand wringing about it is justified.

Still, purchasing the shiny LeapPad made me a little nervous. Was it a gateway drug to the slobbering, media-addicted zombie that so many preteens are presented as today? Was I dooming her to a disconnected existence? Was I giving in to commercial pressures? Was I destroying my kid with a hunk of expensive, blinking plastic?

Even though I don't really believe that (or else I wouldn't have bought the thing), the anxiety was fresh on my mind when I stumbled upon this petition against a Fisher Price "Apptivity" baby seat: a bouncy chair that has a built-in iPad station hovering above the infant's head. In the petition (that, as of this writing, has over 12,000 signatures), the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has this to say:
Babies need laps, not apps. Fisher-Price should focus on developing products that actually facilitate learning, development, and interaction with caregivers, instead of encouraging parents to strap down babies—even those too young to sit up—inches from a screen.
It sparked this blog post from Claudia M. Gold suggesting that such inventions actually violate infants' rights to healthy development.

I know. I know. That sounds extreme.

Indeed, a lot of people see the petition alone as going too far. Just don't buy the thing. Problem solved, right?

Even as much as I love media, even as I am okay with handing my child my iPhone to play a round of Angry Birds, even as I plan to give my child essentially an iPad-in-training for Christmas, I am creeped out to the max by the idea of strapping infants into a chair and forcing them to watch a screen.

It was with all of this bouncing around in the back of my mind that I began reading Walter Ong's The Presence of the Word as part of my PhD exam study. 

At one point, Ong begins discussing the communal nature of language, particularly during its acquisition phase:
children do not achieve thinking by themselves. They learn to think as they are introduced into the use of words which are far older than their teachers, and which belong not to them but to everybody.
See, language--by its very nature--is shared. It is only language when it can be used to communicate with others. That's the point. While it is through language development that we create a sense of individuality and internalize independent thought, that individuality is dependent upon a collective language that is not ours alone. No one can "own" language. It is everybody's. Ong goes on to explain that children have "potential of [their] own" but they cannot access that potential without "oral-aural contact with others."

In other words, interaction with other people is essential for the ability to develop language, and--in turn--that language development is essential for the ability to create a sense of self and, ultimately, to think at all.

Discussing a child's language development, Ong explains that a child "burbles and gurgles and crows and often plays with his lips at the same time" while trying to figure out how language works. But it's only through the feedback from other people that babbling becomes what we consider words:
When the child chances on a sound approximating 'mama,' for example, [parents] often become ecstatic. The child finds that from here on his world blooms in a most wonderful way. He is made over, fondled, caressed (Skinnerian psychologists, who tend to cast explanations in visual-tactile terms, would say he is 'reinforced'), and he soon learns that saying mama is a highly rewarding diversion, especially given a certain state of affairs in the world around him. 
Ong's work spends a lot of time examining the network of sensory perceptions and how they work together. For the child, there is a web of feedback stimuli involved in language development. The mother who hears "mama" may praise the child verbally, smile largely for visual reinforcement, and touch the child with hugs and kisses for kinesthetic feedback. The reinforcement is multi-faceted and intensely tied up with the human relationship, and that's how we figure out what impact certain sounds have upon the community around us. Ong notes that the nature of language development demonstrates the "radically social nature of thought itself."

We are heavily dependent upon the thoughts of people external to us for our own knowledge. The number of things that you could learn through your own sensory perceptions are limited indeed. Without trusting and building upon the knowledge of others passed down to us, we'd know nothing of history, of countries we'd never seen, of the deep sea or outer space, of how to build a lightbulb, and so on.

Research has connected infants' early brain development and this need for interaction to develop language, positing that there is a critical period between zero and three where the "neurons are best able to form connections based simply on exposure to input." Indeed, this is the justification the AAP gives for continuing to recommend that children under the age of 2 get no exposure to screens (despite the fact that both anecdotal and data-driven evidence suggest very few people are following that advice).

Perhaps this is why companies are starting to present their technological advancements not as toys, but as people. Take the Nabi, a children's tablet with the tagline "It's more than a tablet; it's a friend." 


But Nabi is not a friend. It is a toy, a tool, a machine. It may have a cute talking face, and it may provide a child some great hands-on practice for using electronic tools to create and consume information, but it cannot replace what the brain really needs to develop language: interaction with real people. And it is that interaction that leads to language, to thinking. 

Ultimately, this is why I think the petition against the "Apptivity" seat and our continued discussion of the social norms surrounding media use for children are so important. Even if you choose not to buy the iPad seat, if it becomes a popular choice, that has an immense impact on our cultural language development.

Language, after all, belongs to everybody.

Photo: mackattck, gnews pics

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What Can We Expect of Our Media Icons?: Thoughts on Beyonce & Pantene

The connection between Beyonce and Pantene may not be readily apparent, but this is one of those perfect storms of media coverage where all the dots have lined up in my own personal Rorschach test.

Some ancient water god entity
"Ooh. Ooh. This one's gender oppression, too!"

It started with this post from Time asking brands to stop using feminism as a marketing tool:

Brands like Dove and Pantene have made millions by preying on women’s insecurities and convincing them they need to buy products to meet societal standards of beauty: sure, you’re beautiful just the way you are, but use our products and you can be even more beautiful.
They were referring to this ad, which has gone viral in the past week or so:

It's a well-edited, clearly thought-out piece that demonstrates the double standards in the perception of behaviors by men and women. A woman working into the evening instead of spending time with her child is "selfish" while a man is "driven." A self-assured man is a "boss" while a woman is merely "bossy." And so on. 

Other criticisms of this ad have popped up, including this one that argues women shouldn't be thinking about the way others perceive them anyway: 
This is playing the victim if I've ever witnessed it, and not all women think this way, nor want to. But thanks for the note, Pantene. 
I assure you plenty of successful, powerful women aren't speaking in boardrooms and worrying about being "bossy" or "pushy." Newsflash: Those kinds of negative thoughts only hinder your success.
The author, Ashley Hesseltine, goes on to argue that most people don't fall into these labels anymore, and those who do aren't worth worrying about anyway.

Trust me. I want to be on her side. I want to believe that this is just a dramatization of sexism for brownie points (and cold hard cash) that have no bearing on real women's lived experiences, but I just can't get there with her.

Everyday Feminism has a post about gender-neutral parenting (which is worth a read in its own right) that opens up with a discussion of the impact of unrecognized gender biases. One impact of these biases shows up in a very real way. When given identical resumes except for the name (one male, one female) science faculty considered the men more hireable and gave them higher recommended starting salaries.

Hesseltine's insistence that these views are the minority positions of small-minded folk best left ignored are certainly comforting, but I don't think they're true.

Which brings me back to the first criticism: should Pantene be using feminist messages of self-acceptance to sell a product that is ultimately about making ourselves more acceptable by beauty standards?

It's a criticism that came up with the Dove "Real Beauty" commercials, too. When I wrote about that one, I tried to place it in a context of what else was out there. After getting bombarded with ad after ad about needing to lose weight or make myself less frumpy, the "Real Beauty" commercials (whatever the ultimate motive of their creators (hint: it's cash), were a welcome breath of fresh air.

My ultimate conclusion on the Dove controversy is basically the same as my ultimate conclusion on the Pantene controversy. I have absolutely no delusions that Dove or Pantene (as commercial entities, as represented by their CEO's, whatever) care about my body image or how good I feel about myself. While I can't venture to guess about the individual philosophies of people who work on the board or the marketing campaigns, I feel fairly confident in saying that neither Dove nor Pantene is a feminist entity.

And--for me--that's okay. We live in a capitalist society, and the advertisers operate to make money. It's the same reason those horribly sexist Axe commercials are created from Dove's parent company: they are catering to their audiences. Axe's audience is horny teenage boys. Dove's audience is--apparently--women who are sick of being told how ugly they are every time they turn on the TV or open a magazine.

Two-Way Street Sign

Media is a two-way street. It has a tremendous impact on how we craft our images of self, reality, and values. But it's also created by us. It's literally created by us in that all media is crafted by human hands and interpreted by human minds. It's economically created by us because what we choose to buy and promote is curated into the mainstream. But it's also more subtly created by us because media responds to the beliefs and values of the society even as it creates beliefs and values. 

For that reason, it is immensely important that we hold media accountable for the messages sent, but it's also important that we use it as a tool to check out our own reflection. 

If more people are demanding that advertisers stop telling them they are ugly, then that's a win. If more people are responding positively to messages that point out unquestioned gender biases, that's a win, too. If the companies are doing it to get rich (they are), that doesn't change the reason they think they can get rich doing it to begin with: because we've changed. Or, at the very least, our existence is recognized because the way that media is shared has changed. Companies are going to have to start paying lip service to values they hadn't considered before, and that's a good thing for anyone who cares about those values.

Which brings me to Beyonce. She broke the internet on Friday the 13th when she announced a surprise album (that, yes, I bought) with videos. Included on the album is a track ("Flawless") with decidedly feminist undertones confirmed by an incredibly feminist overtone. Author Chimamanda Adiche discusses gender inequality before defining feminism as “a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.”

The line comes from her TED Talk entitled "We Should All Be Feminists," an excellent talk that is definitely powerful, but that I seriously doubt has the reach of Beyonce's album.

There has been some criticism of Beyonce as a feminist icon. Most recently, I've seen people making the same claim about Beyonce as has been made about Pantene: she's just using feminism as a commercial ploy.

I can't even begin to speak on Beyonce's personal feminist convictions (just as I can't speak to the personal feminist leanings of the Pantene or Dove CEOs). She is, by this point, very much a brand, and I think the clips of her childhood stardom sprinkled throughout her new videos operate to underscore that point. Beyonce is not just a person; she is a product, and she manages the product that she sells very well.

If she is embracing feminism (which she didn't always do), then it's possible that she's doing it for commercial reasons. Maybe it is a marketing ploy.

But if it is a marketing ploy, we need to remember that it's a ploy with consumers in mind, and Beyonce is not (in case you haven't noticed) a little indie artist with a small following. If she thinks that feminism is the ticket to commercial success, it means something. And that something is a good thing.

Sure, the feminism touted by Dove, Pantene, and (as much as I enjoy the album) even Beyonce is not going to have the nuance or depth to it that activists who have devoted their lives to the cause would like. A commercial presentation of feminism (even if its sincere) is going to fall short of many feminists' hopes. To be fair, though, we often can't even agree among ourselves what our feminist hopes are, so it's really not valid to act as if shampoo companies are the only ones confused. But that's okay, too.

After Beyonce's album dropped, I saw someone arguing about gender inequality on a Facebook thread, and they gave Adichie's definition of feminism as part of their argument. Sure, it's possible that this person had watched Adichie's talk or gleaned it from reading feminist theory, but considering the timing it's a lot more likely that she had heard it on the album.

If accepting commercialized versions of feminism to flow into the mainstream gives people on the fence about their own acceptance of feminism as an identity tools to unpack that, then it is doing a lot of good--certainly way more good than a commercial that tells us putting our hair in a pony tail is a personal failing.

From the Archives: Moms, are You Going to Win Christmas This Year?

I wrote this post two years ago. One fortunate side effect of studying for PhD exams while working full time (and having Netflix) is that I don't have to see as many commercials as I once did, so this particular trend hasn't been able to aggravate me as much this year, but I'm willing to bet it's still out there. 


I know that there are no shortage of eloquent explanations of frustration with the greedy nature of the holiday season (for instance, this NPR piece on the irony of A Charlie Brown Christmas--a film with an anti-consumerist message--selling as an overpriced app).

And, yes, I think we're all aware that Christmas-gift shopping can get a little hectic. We worry about how to teach our children the true meaning of the Christmas spirit and some of us curse under our breaths (and some of us just curse) when they start piping Christmas music through the stores in October.

But what's really got me going right now is the idea that Christmas is some kind of contest. We've got to win it! If we get the right things at the right price, we win! If we don't, well, let's not even think about that, because we're going to win!

And it's apparently a marketing dream scheme because it's everywhere:

  • There's the series of Target Black Friday commercials that show a woman obsessively working out in preparation for the sale. At one point, she's trying to psych herself up by telling herself "You will win this." By setting herself up as the "winner," even shopping for other people is ultimately about self-fulfillment. This mentality turns a potentially altruistic activity into a selfish one. 
  • In a similar vein, Wal-Mart's price guarantee commercial features a somewhat manic Christmas shopping mom who is extremely excited to hear that Wal-Mart will guarantee their prices. At one point she says "And then my kids will be like, 'You rule!'" while pointing to herself. Again, the goal is to "win" favor through the Christmas gifts. 
  • And one more mom who's going to win her kid's affection through gifts: in this Best Buy commercial, a woman isn't even happy to find her great deals at Best Buy. She is alarmingly stoic as the clerk tells her (light-heartedly) "Santa better watch out, huh?" Then we see her confronting Santa from the shadowy recesses of her living room, mocking him because there is no room left for him to leave presents. Here the idea of "winning" moves from an abstract concept to a more concrete one. This mom is literally defeating Santa Claus because she wants the glory for the things. 
  • Of course, these shopping moms can't be held completely responsible, especially when they're up against a world full of commercial children who are portrayed as entitled and greedy. In this Littlewoods (a UK-based retail company) commercial, kids use their school Christmas play to sing an ode to their mothers and the wonderful gifts they've given them. The moms beam with pride as their children point them out and list the great things they got for Christmas. The message is clear: if you get the right gifts, you're a good mom who wins your child's affection. If not, well, you wouldn't want to find out, would you? Go shopping. 
  • But at least the kids in the Littlewoods commercial are friendly and nice. Some other commercial kids are downright hostile. Take this eBay commercial where a young girl breaks into a snotty rant in the middle of a family rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas" to chastise everyone for the horrible gifts they've given her in the past and to draw their attention to her very specific eBay list so that they don't mess up this year. 

This focus on competition depresses me, and it's even more frustrating that it's almost entirely moms portrayed in these commercials. We don't really need any more perpetuation of the crazy "supermom" who thinks she has to do it all. We also don't really need any more hyper-competitiveness between moms, who are already at each other's throats over everything from how to feed our children to what strollers they should sit in to how they should sleep. Not to mention, there are plenty of hard-working dads who (along with many hard-working moms) both make the money to pay for these mountains of toys and--yes, they sometimes do--go shopping for them themselves. These commercials make moms out to be slightly unhinged, vicariously selfish (because even though they're buying the gifts for their kids, their main concern is to "win"), and really annoying. 

CentUp: Reward Your Favorite Online Content Creators for FREE!

Do you know about CentUp? I use it here on Balancing Jane because I fell in love with the concept. There's a little button at the bottom of each post, and if you have a CentUp account and click it, you give a cent (or however much you decide) to the creator (in this case, me! And it all goes to roller derby gear, so it's for a good cause.) Half of the money goes to one of several charities--your choice! (I split anything I donate with Pencils of Promise).

thumbs up

If you are a blog writer or otherwise create content online, I encourage you to consider signing up yourself

My favorite part of CentUp is getting to share my own cents with content creators I enjoy. I find subscription models for blogs untenable for me (there are too many times where I don't get to read as much as I'd like, and I read too many blogs to make subscribing to them all affordable), but I still want to make sure that the bloggers I follow get paid for their work and can keep doing what they do. 

And if you want to sign up, right now you get 100 FREE cents, without even having to add any money of your own.

If you choose to take advantage of this great deal, may I suggest that you go and take a look at some of my friends who are using CentUp on their sites. My friend Amanda writes Two Americans in China about her experiences as an ex-pat. Chantilly gives excellent cultural commentary over at Bicultural Mom. I've also found new content through CentUp like The Weeklings and Creativity Unbound.

And if you decide to get CentUp on your own blog, let me know in the comments so I can come by and share some cents with you! 

Edit: I reworded a section of this post to correct an error about the selection of the charities. 

Photo: Sarah Reid

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious: Catch Up Edition

I've been in a haze of end-of-semester grading/reading/chaos. I've fallen behind on my link round-up duties, but I'm back to fix it! Without further ado, here are the things of the past [two? three?] week[s] that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

Turns out paying employees a living wage (like Trader Joe's does) doesn't actually bring about the end of the world.

Did you see this great blog carnival as part of the promotion for the Mogul, Mom & Maid book? It looks at balancing motherhood with the rest of life's demands.

Feministing has a round up of feminist music videos of 2013, and it includes this, which I love (but note, this list came out before Beyonce broke the internet with her surprise visual album):

This isn't a link, but I got roller skates, and it made me smile!

Speaking of roller skating, check out the Rollergirl Project that takes a look at the diversity of bodies in roller derby and the impact the sport has on the players. 

The Bad

The Daily Mail pretty outrageously misses the point of Beyonce's "Pretty Hurts" video, using the clips to demonstrate how great she looks even though she's a mom.

Fox News' Megyn Kelly incredulously tells viewers that Santa "just is" white (like Jesus), and when many people (most impressively Jon Stewart) point out how ridiculous that is, she explains that we just can't take a joke.

It looks like Texas Republicans are trying to disenfranchise female voters

We're lining fast food CEO's pockets with our tax dollars in more ways than one, and it's all on the backs of workers being paid subpar wages. 

The Curious

This New York Times article makes the case for filth by saying that the only way to get to house work gender equality is to stop worrying about cleaning:

Hooray for disinvestment. Caring less is the hope of the future. Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude. Fifty years ago, it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and to vacuum drapes. They were “necessary” tasks. The solution to the inequality of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all.

And this New York Magazine article responds with why this won't actually help:

Yes, there are Pinterest divas who spend a lot of time making candles and knitting, as Marche dismissively writes. (Let’s not even go into the fact that he is reflexively dismissing these activities because he associates them with women.) But that is not what we are talking about: No one feels men ought to spend more time making mason jar Christmas ornaments. We are talking about our husbands vacuuming once a month. That is not the “garbage” of gender stereotypes. This is bottom-basement courtesy when you are in a shared living arrangement, regardless of whether your roommates are men, women, children, or animals.
Many (myself included) have been very impressed with the Pope's recent statements about income inequality, but Adele Stahn urges us to remember that he's still endorsing the gender inequality that supports that income inequality.

Is all our praise for creativity just lip service? Jessica Olien thinks so.

Do you log sex as a workout?

A new study demonstrates that memories pass between generations:

Prof Marcus Pembrey, from University College London, said the findings were "highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders" and provided "compelling evidence" that a form of memory could be passed between generations.
Akiba Solomon brings up some good questions about the ethics of entertainment consumption by examining Jezebel's treatment of R Kelly:
Just as the NAACP nominated this man for an Image Award while he was facing trial for sex with underage girls and actually gave him a 2013 award this year for penning Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” I’ve been guilty of choosing pretty melodies over what is right. But this isn’t fodder for jokey joke writing.
It’s called hypocrisy.
So, that's what I've been reading. I hope to do a little more writing over the next few weeks while I'm on "break" (the square quotes are because I have to spend that time writing my dissertation prospectus). I hope everyone's end-of-semester/beginning-of-holidays/December is going great!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What Do Fit Shaming, Fat Shaming, Slut Shaming, and Mom Shaming Have in Common? (Hint, It Starts with "S")

I remember the first time someone called me fat in an internet comment. We were having a debate about the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. The person on the other side of the conversation was saying incredibly offensive homophobic things, and I was working very hard to stay level and calm. He then told me that my "girth" would prevent me from joining the military so I didn't get to have an opinion. Then he bragged that he didn't care what a "fat liberal feminist" thought anyway. 

I had never met this man. The only thing he had to go on was the picture in my Facebook profile, but it was enough for him to find the words that would cut me down and push me out of the conversation.

Here's the picture he saw of my offensive girth. Rawr. 
It stung.

Since then, I've been called a lot names on the internet. I run a blog that talks about feminism and equality, and I tend to not shut up very easily, so I guess I make myself a target. I've been called a "fat cunt," a "Miss Piggy-looking bitch," and several other versions of the same insult. 

I tell you this because I want you to have some context for my reaction to Rebecca Sparrow's Mamamia post about fitness blogger's Caroline Berg Eriksen's post-pregnancy picture on Instagram

Sparrow calls Eriksen's posting of her incredibly svelte picture an "act of war." This war is, according to Sparrow, being waged against the rest of us, all of the women who did not have sculpted abs four days after giving birth to a human being. 

I don't object to Sparrow's bristling at yet another image that could (and likely will) be used to shame women over their post-pregnancy bodies. The Maria Kang controversy has been fresh on everyone's minds, and there are plenty of celebs revealing their "post-baby bodies" to mount the pressure on a nearly obsessive preoccupation with physical appearance during a time of vulnerability and emotional chaos in women's lives.  

However, in critiquing this image, Sparrow says this about Eriksen: 
A woman with watermelon boobs and long glossy hair and a thigh gap reminiscent of when my daughter sticks matchsticks in a lump of play-doh.
Yikes. Like I said above, I've had people say a lot of cruel things about my body in anonymous internet commentary, and I'm not seeing the difference. Calling out Eriksen's legs as "matchsticks in a lump of play-doh" is cruel body shaming. There's no other way to spin that.

Then, later, Sparrow takes issue with Eriksen posting a picture of herself without her baby present:
But here’s where I have a problem.
Where’s Nelia?
Who? THE BABY. Remember her? THE BABY that was until last Monday a tenant in Caroline’s stomach.
A woman has just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and it’s not the new life Caroline appears to want us to focus on.
Caroline wants us to be talking about how HOT she looks. Now see, I think that’s a bit fucked up.
Even though she embeds an entire series of Eriksen's Instagram shots that include pictures of her baby, her baby's room, her baby's toys, and her holding her baby, she ignores all of them to hone in on the shot of Eriksen solo and uses it to create a narrative of narcissism and neglectful parenting.

This implies women are not allowed to present individuality once they become mothers. When the baby comes into the world, motherhood is the sole identity we're allowed to put forward. Anything else is seen as a selfish, ungrateful distraction from "the most important job in the world." This is the exact same narrative that shames working mothers or mothers who go out to party with friends, the same narrative that has people calling the police on a breastfeeding mother drinking a beer, and the same narrative that leaves mothers feeling like they can't turn for help when postpartum depression or just day-to-day life overwhelms them.

Sparrow is ostensibly standing up against a "war" on women's bodies, but all she's really doing is shifting the same body and life choice shaming around. Maria Kang fat shaming women on Facebook, Rush Limbaugh slut shaming women on his radio show, people throwing blankets over breastfeeding mothers, and mocking someone's legs as "matchsticks" stuck in play-doh all come from the same place: one built on shaming others to shore up our own limited resources.

It's a game of hierarchy that we will never win. As long as we keep insisting that someone's appearance/life choice has to be on the bottom, we'll keep going round and round this same nightmarish merry-go-round.



I just want to add that after I wrote this, I talked to Rebecca Sparrow on Twitter, and she agreed that she shouldn't have shamed Eriksen and that she should have made broader commentary about the expectations of post-pregnancy bodies in general. As someone who has hit "post" a little too quickly on my own rash writings, I want to say that I respect Sparrow for admitting to that and think there's a lot of opportunity for some good conversations about women supporting one another here. 

Image: Rowena 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Valuing our Values: Feminism, Motherhood, and Pink Collar Work

If you're not caught up on the #FeminismIsForMothersToo conversation, here's a quick recap:

Michelle Cottle wrote an article for Politico titled "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare." She laments that Michelle Obama will not be the one to "shatter the First Lady mold" as she is essentially focusing on being (in her own words) "mom-in-chief" and existing squarely within the confines of traditional gender roles in her acts as FLOTUS.

Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner (CEO of  Moms Rising) wrote a response pointing out the problems with denigrating the role of motherhood within feminism and coined the hashtag #FeminismIsForMothersToo which led to an interesting discussion surrounding the tension, overlap, and partnership of motherhood and feminism.

These conversations are running across a spectrum that includes policy issues, political posturing, and societal value. 

The mainstream narrative of tension between motherhood and feminism is rampant. In fact, it's been one of the defining points of focus for this blog. I've written about my frustration with framing feminism and motherhood as competing ideologies and how so many notions of feminism seem to forget that children are also people.  

Perhaps it's because of where I'm at personally, but this particular conversation is taking me in a slightly different direction. Michelle Obama is being questioned not for her ability to mother, but her ability to "work." In this case, work has a very specific connotation, and it is uniquely divorced from the typical economic notions. 

We often only define something as a "job" or "work" when it comes with pay. In Michelle Obama's case, her role as First Lady of the United States is complicated. She does not receive a salary for this role (a fact that Mr. Obama was lambasted in the conservative press for pointing out). While Cottle certainly seems to have very specific duties she expects of the First Lady, this is not a paid position with a job description. 

It's clear, though, that we still consider her role "work" and judge it on merits similar to those we apply to a paying position. It is "work" when it is intellectually taxing, physically challenging, and socially important. 

I'm on record for saying that I don't think that motherhood is a job, and I think that it's a bad idea to try to make it one. It most certainly is, however, work. Parenting is hard work. It is intellectually taxing, physically and emotionally challenging, and immensely important to the future of society. But just as Michelle Cottle does not believe that Michelle Obama's "mom-in-chief" role fits the bill, American society in general devalues the work of motherhood consistently and loudly. 

Devaluing of "Women's" Work

It is not just motherhood that gets questioned in this devaluing of "women's" work: it is a whole range of activities and methods that are feminized and marginalized by mainstream narratives of success. 

In Cottle's piece, she notes that many see Michelle Obama's recent foray into higher education as a sign that she might actually, finally, six years into her role as FLOTUS be ready to do some actual work. But Cottle says not so fast: 
Don’t count on it. As President Obama claws his way through a second term, the sense of urgency for his well-educated wife to do more—to make a difference—may well be mounting. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. In fact, East Wing officials I spoke with stress that Michelle Obama is not about to tap her inner wonk—she will focus on young people, not policy—and while the task of promoting higher ed may be new, speaking directly to kids is simply what Michelle does. Sure enough, in a sit-down with BET’s 106 & Park the week after the Education Department rollout, there was the first lady in full mom mode, lecturing students about nothing more politically controversial than the need to do their homework and get to school on time.
Catch that? Because she is doing it "in full mom mode," Michelle Obama's methods to securing higher education reform are inadequate. The only adequate methods involve policy board meetings and talking to a bunch of old white men in suits. Speaking directly to the kids on 106 & Park is as inconsequential as you can get. 

It's kind of like how doctors are valued for their life-saving medical knowledge, but nurses are often overlooked for theirs. A building beautified by an architect or a painter is a sign of extreme intelligence and hard work, but a flower arrangement created by a florist or a haircut clipped by a cosmetologist is a frivolity.  

Yang's Flower Arrangement

These are the "pink collar" jobs: work traditionally done by women. It is made up of jobs that are focused more on personal interactions and the devaluing of these tasks is directly related to the devaluing of that which is read as "feminine" by the society at large. 

Here I mean "devaluing" in both the literal and figurative senses. We pay people in the "pink collar" jobs a lot less, and we look down on them for doing it. 

There's a plot line in the TV show Scrubs where Elliott is cut off from her father financially when she refuses to become an OB/GYN. Throughout the show (and many other shows/films set in medical environments), the specialist tracks are seen as elite, prestigious, and intellectual while the work of a family practitioner or pediatrician is seen as sub-par. 

This perception has real-world consequences. According to this article about the pay gap in medicine (women doctors make $50,000/year less than men), women make up more than half of all pediatricians, but fewer than 10 percent of the orthopedic surgeons. 

In almost any field, it seems that the jobs that put one closest to the patient/client/customer are devalued along with the skill sets that work requires: communication, patience, interpersonal skills. Instead, we value work higher when it is seen as distant (and thus elite), further removed from the masses. 

The Gap in Academia

Teaching is pretty squarely a "pink collar" job. It requires a lot of personal interaction with the students, and it has a lot of overlap with mothering, especially at the earliest stages. Perhaps this is why so few men are involved in early childhood education or elementary teaching. And it's not just that men do not want to take these positions; it's also that as a society we are suspicious of them when they do so. I've had a lot of people tell me they wouldn't hire a male caregiver or feel comfortable leaving their children with a male daycare provider. 

As we climb higher in the educational attainment ladder, the gap closes. Men make up only 2% of preschool and kindergarten teachers, but 42% of high school teachers. 

By the time that you reach higher education, the gender gap is more accurately examined by field, but it is certainly not as pronounced as it is earlier in the education spectrum. 

What happens, then, is that a hierarchy appears here just as it does with medicine. It's a fairly commonplace assumption that someone who has gone through medical school and achieved the rank of M.D. is intelligent and hard working, but when those people choose to use that intelligence and hard work to take on the "lesser" task of working directly with patients in a generalist position, they are less valued by society, and those people tend to be women. 

In academia, the teaching that is most like "mothering" is less valued (and here I'm using mothering instead of parenting because we tend to think of mothers as the "nurturing" ones even though fathers are perfectly capable of nurturing, too). Kindergarten requires a lot of calm voices and patience. There are snotty noses to wipe, spills to clean up, and tears to dry. 

You really don't want to see the "after" shots of these.

I teach adults in a college classroom, so I've never had to wipe a snotty nose and I rarely have to dry tears, but I still see a pecking order taking place. I teach developmental education at a community college. My job is at the bottom of the higher education totem pole. I am doing the pink collar work. 

Holly Ann Larson writes about this phenomenon in an essay titled "Emotional Labor: The Pink Collar Duties of Teaching." Larson and I have similar careers. We both teach English at community colleges to students who need some remediation in their skills before continuing their college educations. 

Larson explains that her role is a nurturing one out of necessity: 
In my sixth year of teaching at a community college, I can unhesitatingly say that my primary role as an instructor is to nurture: that is, to perform emotional labor. The term “emotional labor” was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her pivotal book, Managed Hearts (1981; 2003), where she explores how certain jobs, mainly those in the service sector and those predominantly held by women, demand that their workers “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (p. 7).
She goes on to explain the perceived gap in educational prestige:
Teachers at community colleges and technical schools, which are seen as extensions of secondary school, are also viewed as pink-collar workers. Universities, however, are held to a higher standard, where scholarship, as opposed to teaching, is the primary focus. And since the professor at a four-year institution spends less time in the class- room managing students than in his or her personal office focusing on scholarly writing and publishing, the job is not perceived as pink-collar, but as prestigious and respected work.
Most pertinent to me, she points out that pink collar work is often work taken for granted:
Because their emotional labor is seen as a labor of love, one that women do instinctually, their time spent with students or dealing with their problems is not looked upon as rigorous, demanding, and valuable work.
Like Larson, for me connecting with my students and nurturing them is not just a side effect of my career: it is one of the key reasons I was drawn to it to begin with. I love what I do, and I love it not in spite of the fact that it requires an emotional investment from me but because of it.

I have not been shy about articulating this desire. I even announced early in my M.A. program that I intended to work at a community college because it seemed a better fit for my teaching philosophy and skills. Some of my professors were supportive, but some were very vocally opposed, telling me that I was "selling myself short" and not reaching my "full potential."

I strive hard to reach my full career potential every single day. It's just that what I consider my potential doesn't match the standard of success because it's too close, too emotional, too pink.

The problem with devaluing Michelle Obama's work as FLOTUS isn't just that it attacks another woman's personal choices in the name of "feminism," isn't just that it ignores the role of race in the "mold" that Michelle Cottle wants to break in the first place, and isn't just that it creates a rift between feminism and motherhood. It does all of those things, but it also ignores the value of entire skill sets that aren't economically privileged. It ignores what that work does in our society.

I want educational policy changes as much as anyone (probably more than most), but I also know that Michelle Obama sitting down on 106 & Park is not trivial. Talking to children as if they are people is not ridiculous. Doing work that is close and personal and emotional is necessary.

Maybe your definition of success is entirely based on prestige and the size of your paycheck. I won't take it from you. But that's not the only kind of success there is, and if it's the only kind of success feminism has room for, then feminism has truly failed.

Photos: Richard Bitting, An Mai