Feminism


Via Jezebel, a great sentiment from Sarah Silverman about fat jokes. Definitely helps lift my mood from its earlier state.

I was alerted to this article by the fan page of New York State Senator Diane J. Savino, of whom I am indeed a big fan even though I don’t live in New York. The article is a sad (from my standpoint) laundry list of diets that politicians follow to avoid being called or thought of as fat on the campaign trail. What made me perhaps most sad, though, was Sen. Savino’s comment when she posted the article:

Here I am quoted in a NY Times article on campaign season and dieting: ‘Most women are going on a diet whether or not they have a campaign,’ she said. ‘Since I hit puberty, there hasn’t been a week in my life that I haven’t been on a diet. It’s kind of like an ever-present condition for me.’

Well it’s true! Also we will soon be announcing a get healthy campaign this summer. We will keep you posted.

I can’t think about this too hard because I have seen enough fat hate today and already feel pretty much like shit about both my body and my diet. But I hate to see a woman who has accomplished so much just blithely accepting that it is a woman’s lot in life to diet from puberty until death. How can people consider this unproblematic or entirely a health issue? There are few things in life more apparent to me than the fact that the push to be thin on the campaign trail (and really most other places) is NOT. ABOUT. HEALTH.

But the process [of converting the originally male lead role for Angelina Jolie] was a bit trickier than just changing the hero’s name and adding high heels. ‘In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt saves his wife, who’s in danger,’ says Noyce. ‘And what we found was when Evelyn Salt saved her husband in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.’ In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglorious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you very much.

–Chris Nashawaty, writing in Entertainment Weekly on Phillip Noyce’s upcoming movie Salt

I heard a report on NPR this morning, about a University of Buffalo study on consumer buying habits when food prices are manipulated to make “healthy food” (i.e. fruits and vegetables) more affordable. I have several comments. Don’t even get me started on how the report (it is kind of a mish-mash) starts with an example of how “In a London-based study, dieters got paid when they dropped pounds.” ‘Cause everybody needs to “drop pounds,” and everybody can do it without adopting unhealthy crash-dieting tactics, right? Anyway.

Now researchers are interested in understanding how food price manipulations may influence what ends up in mothers’ grocery carts.

Interesting. Are mothers the only people who buy food? I mean, naturally they are the ones to blame for killing their families with “junk food.” Everyone knows that.

‘Then we looked at the purchasing patterns of these mothers,’ explains Len Epstein, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Buffalo who was involved in the study. He says the mothers’ choices were somewhat predictable. When the costs went down, ‘they did buy more of the healthy foods.’

But since the healthful items now cost a lot less, the moms had money leftover. Esptein says they used it to buy more junk food.

‘When you put it all together, their shopping baskets didn’t have improved nutrition,’ says Epstein — they had the same amounts of fats and carbohydrates.

“Didn’t have improved nutrition”? Fat and carbohydrates ARE NUTRIENTS. As Kate pointed out long ago (but most people have yet to get the memo): adding cheese sauce to your broccoli does not negate the nutritional value of the broccoli. In fact–although this is beside the point that in my opinion grownups should be allowed to make their own food choices–some nutrients are fat-soluble, and limiting fat does not seem to be a priori a good thing. I thought we were all on board with that these days?

I get that in this case they are talking about people buying processed snacks, but simply totting up the macronutrients in the cart and concluding that a cart containing a variety of whole foods and some processed, fatty and/or sugary foods is just as “bad” as a cart containing all processed foods (or, to put it another way, that limiting carbohydrates and fat as much as possible is something to strive for) seems ridiculous to me. (Leaving aside that my shopping cart might contain all produce one day and all, I don’t know, baking ingredients, light bulbs, and cleaning products another.) Also, I can’t find the study, but I would be really interested in knowing exactly what the composition of those shopping carts was. Were they really outside the bounds of a reasonable carbohydrate/protein/fat ratio?

The researchers, in any case, conclude that a “sin tax” is therefore the way to go. Great. That should really help poor people get the calories they need to function and survive. WHY do these people always assume that the ideal that we should all be striving for is to live on, like, vegetables and air?

The report then jumps for some reason (under the heading “Effecting Change in the Real World”–and I’m not suggesting people stop trying to find creative ways to give kids access to healthy food, but let’s recall that we learned in Rethinking Thin that even the largest, most comprehensive school nutrition intervention programs aimed at reducing obesity, which is likely the subtext of all this since again, fruits and vegetables are emphasized whereas higher-calorie whole foods are not) to an anecdote about a school which bars any snacks other than fruit during the school day. I have no problem with fruit, obviously, but I think the more telling part of this is a statement by the teacher interviewed for the report that “Once they get it every day, they’ll eat like three bananas.” Maybe these growing kids are just hungry and fruit doesn’t always cut it? How about some dried fruit, nuts, cheese, yogurt, trail mix, or something?

It also doesn’t help that every time I see a program like this gleefully enforced by an adult (as it is by this teacher, who brags that she “has tried for years to enforce a healthful snack rule in her classroom”–yeah, let’s try to control how families spend their own food budget without offering assistance), I can’t help but think that he or she has probably been dieting his/her whole life, like most people who live in modern society, and is likely projecting those mores onto kids. Making fruit available: good. Making a moral issue out of it: bad. Assuming “more vegetables and less of everything else is always better” or “fewer calories is always better”: also bad.

Wow… I thought I sort of liked Tony Kornheiser, not that I know a whole lot about him, but this is ridiculous. It’s just so… funny, I suppose, that the system that gives rise to women in sports reporting wearing more provocative or at least “cute” clothing (which, not that I care, but I think the outfit she is wearing looks fine), while men wear the typical no-brainer suit uniform, also allows men to judge out loud whether their colleagues are being compliant enough with said system. (Wear frumpy clothes and you don’t get noticed, but go “too far” the other way and people feel free to make fun of you for being “old” and pathetic.) I mean, sure, you might see a sports analyst joking about another guy’s loud suit but I think we all know that would have a far different tone. Why… it’s almost like this is a no-win situation for women or something.

Of course, this is what happens when we have 24-hour news and people have to think of stuff to say to fill the time. Eventually they are going to say something stupid and usually it’s something that reflects their true colors.

Laurie Ruettimann posted a question of mine over at her site, Punk Rock HR, the other day. Basically, I asked how to deal with a 2-year stretch of unemployment if I ever get an interview again, but the commenters picked up on my negative tone and lack of confidence, and offered a lot of good and thoughtful feedback mostly directed at that. So my conviction that I am incompetent and bad at my job–despite evidence to the contrary ranging from excellent grades and test scores to always having received good performance reviews–has been on my mind lately.

Through mulling over these issues and a conversation with my therapist this week where we discussed my work issues, I came to one realization that seemed pertinent–it feels like I started losing confidence in my abilities when the relationship between myself and those I answered to changed. One commenter to the Punk Rock HR post stated that he had hired a woman who lacked confidence but did OK until, as he stated:

The doubts came back in her mind because the “customer” she supported changed from a nurturing kind “father” to a dishonest “dick”.

I can kind of see where this employee was coming from. Up until my first true “grown-up” job, I had mostly personal relationships and relationships with authority figures where the contract went: be polite and helpful, do your work, and people will be happy and satisfied. This (more or less) applied to my teachers and professors, supervisors at my summer jobs during college, and my bosses and clients through most of my first “real” engineering job out of school.

Not that most of this doesn’t still apply at work. Do your job, don’t make trouble for others, and you are still ahead of a sadly large number of other employees out there. But eventually, in my first job, I was asked to do some site assessments in which I would have to ask convenience store managers for access to the property but was not supposed to reveal who my client was or why the work was being done. Except the project manager didn’t tell me that in advance–it was just assumed that I would be discreet. So I followed my usual model–figure out how people are feeling, figure out a way to make them feel better–and really for the first major time, it wasn’t right. I told an angry and suspicious store manager who the client was (a convenience store chain) and why they had ordered the site assessments (they were going to buy the convenience stores I was visiting) in an effort to, basically, make him less mad at me.

This turned out not to be a major problem in the end, but my PM sat me down and coached me on not revealing that kind of information. As I look back now, what he was in effect asking me to do was to get myself in the door, but then just LET people be hostile, upset, irritated, or scared, and not try to fix it! This goes completely against the grain of my personality, and it’s no wonder that I still found myself overexplaining, talking myself into a corner, saying the wrong things, and wondering why I couldn’t do this right.

In my next job I found myself having similar difficulties, but the stakes were higher–I worked for a larger firm now, and was involved in several collaborative projects where different pieces of the pie went to different local firms. Because of this, there was something of a tendency for the company representatives to “work together” at the same time as attempting to make the other players look bad in front of the ultimate client… after all, we were all going to have to bid against each other on the next project. There were also the usual office politics, a testy administrative assistant whom I couldn’t seem to appease no matter what I did, and other interactions that were confusing and difficult for me. Still, to some extent, I kept interacting with people by attempting to put them at ease and make them happy, when the best strategy would have been to present data and information without a lot of explanation or rationalization, and certainly without apologizing, which unfortunately I did copiously.

(I’m oversimplifying, and there is no question that I made PLENTY of other mistakes as well, mostly in the area of being disorganized and a procrastinator. It also probably didn’t help that typically, all the other people in a given meeting were male engineers with 15+ years experience, and I was usually the only woman and certainly the only one in my twenties.)

In any case, not surprisingly, this continued not to work very well–and eventually I ended up quitting my most recent job in my field because over the years I had become so overwhelmed by my belief in my own incompetence (technical and otherwise) that on some level I was afraid to attempt or do anything.

But I now realize that at least one piece of that puzzle is that not every communication in the corporate world is intended by all parties to result in mutual happiness or satisfaction. Sometimes someone is just plain trying to make you look bad, take pressure off themselves, or is taking out their personal frustrations on you. Sometimes someone is getting pressure from elsewhere (or maybe they are just used to a more adversarial, challenging style of interaction where confidence is highly valued and where you try to get one up on others… this seems common in engineering in my experience), and that is why they, for example, come at you out of the blue demanding an immediate answer to a question that really requires an “I’ll get back to you later.” But at the time, I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking that time because then I would hang up the phone with the other person still unhappy, and that was an unacceptable outcome for me.

Another commenter to Laurie’s post made a common argument, that women seem to be their “own worst enemy” when it comes to engaging in mutual self-flagellation where career issues are concerned. Personally I think this probably comes from social conditioning and not something biologically innate to women, or whatever. It seems to be advantageous in some way for us to beat ourselves up rather than displaying confidence, and I think the advantage has something to do with it being detrimental to appear overconfident and therefore threatening to men in social situations. The commenter also noted that even nowadays, many girls don’t think they “can do math,” which in my mind is closely related to the “own worst enemy” concept. I’m sure no school in 2010 actually teaches girls that they can’t do math and science, but although things are much better than they used to be, it is true that girls still lack confidence in these areas, or find it easier to get by if they hide their confidence.

This is also not limited to “math”–for me it’s more hands-on, physical labor with a technical component, along the lines of woodworking or car repair. I was putting up a blind over the summer at my grandparents’ house with a screw at one of those sort of odd, frustrating angles, and my dad (whom I love dearly) took the screwdriver out of my hand and did it himself. I’m 33 years old. I’m sure that in no way did he mean “you can’t do this, stop wasting my time”… the thought (though it was probably not explicit) was probably more like “my little girl is struggling with something, I will help her and fix it.”

I will also admit that unfortunately, I am guilty of just hanging back and letting my husband do projects around the house if he grabs the tools before I can. Because this translates to my work to some extent (I have encountered random needs like quickly getting a finicky boat to start, assembling and disassembling equipment, lifting heavy items like manhole covers, climbing fences, etc.–not to mention design projects where it is beneficial to have some hands-on experience with things like plumbing components, and not just the theory you learn in school), I have been trying to grab the tools myself and just do things around the house my share of the time, even if it frustrates my husband to watch me do it because he thinks he could do it better.

The upshot for me is that if men or similarly confident women jump in to do these things to save me trouble and frustration, and I let them, then I am positioning myself lower on the totem pole and I never get comfortable with that kind of work. So then I continue to be and look uncomfortable doing it, and that nice coworker may continue to jump in to do it for me… possibly because he was raised both to be comfortable working with his hands, and to have an action bias, rather than to avoid “just doing” things because he is afraid of doing them wrong (which is more my tendency). The end result is that I contribute to the unspoken belief that women are “just bad” at this type of work, which in my experience continues to hang around under the surface. Everybody typically means well in these situations, but the result could certainly be detrimental both to women’s self-sufficiency and our careers.

Thanks again to Laurie for posting my question (as you can see, the responses really got me thinking), and for her fantastic blog.

…the problems with Glee? Yes, it’s entertaining (I’m giving it another couple of episodes in the hope that it will settle some of its issues, because I enjoy the singing, the show’s potential, and the school setting), but so far it’s also pretty sexist. Beyond that, very few of the characters are remotely likable (the exceptions for me are the main female character, Rachel Berry; the teacher, Will Schuester, who is so bland and inoffensive that it is hard to have an opinion about him one way or the other; the principal; and cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, at least for the roughly 30% of the time when the incomparable Jane Lynch is spouting hilariously demented lines rather than filling up a feminist stereotype bingo card). It’s like the show’s creator hates the entire cast in addition to hating all women everywhere.

Here are a few of the sexist characters, tropes, and images I noticed in the last couple of episodes:

  • Mr. Schuester’s wife, Terri, is a lazy, whiny, entitled princess who thinks she’s put-upon for having to work part-time at a Sheets-‘n-Things store. She is also stupid, as evidenced by her “hysterical pregnancy.” Oh, the hilarity! In general, she seems to exist to fulfill the belief that your wife really is naggy and evil and out to take all your money, whereas you are a saint with the patience of Job, and furthermore the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence where that cuter younger model whose only apparent personality trait is quirkiness resides. By the way, when I was trying to find this character’s name, I came across a forum link with a discussion thread entitled “Anyone else can’t stand Terri?” Um, I highly doubt you’re supposed to like her. The one glimmer of hope I see for Terri is that she appears to realize at the end of the most recent episode that lying about her pregnancy was wrong, but was so scared she didn’t see another alternative. A true cardboard cutout would have been totally fine with the lie.
  • Which brings me to Terri’s sister, another flat stereotype whose husband is afraid to go to the bathroom without permission, who eggs Terri on to purchase an elaborate McMansion that they can’t afford (side note: their “inadequate” apartment appears to contain a giant clawfoot tub in a beautifully restored bathroom–WTF?), perpetuates the “wives and mothers are lazy spoiled princesses” trope again by admonishing Terri not to give up her “craft room” for a nursery in a mockery of the concept that stressed-out moms should dare have any outlet for themselves, and encourages her to continue lying to her husband about the mistaken pregnancy. This character is like all of the most hateful assumptions about women distilled into one person.
  • Sue is hilarious and in many ways a joy to watch, as Jane Lynch always is. But they also write self-important lines for the character that are intended to show the hilarity and ridiculousness that is feminism–murmuring “offensive” to the phrase “cock of the walk,” lashing out that she doesn’t want to be treated like a second-class citizen because of her gender when gender wasn’t really part of the discussion. This should all be just super for coddling and justifying complacent viewers’ misinformed beliefs about what “feminists are like.” Of course there is a line that reveals Sue to be post-menopausal as well, because it wouldn’t do to portray a character like her as anything other than man-hating, “dried up,” and desexualized (though the show also could have gone with “‘scary’ butch lesbian”).
  • Emma, the school’s guidance counselor, has the potential to be an interesting character, so I will reserve judgment on her for now (though I don’t like the general idea of the tiny, pure, perfect ingenue who often appears on TV and in film and is always just so much more appealing than the ol’ ball and chain), but in a really gross line from last week’s show, she advises Rachel that not having a gag reflex will be a boon to her “later in life.” This line veers just a little too close to “rape is funny” for my comfort–it assumes that oral sex is de facto uncomfortable and unpleasant for women, but something that you are simply required to buck up and do anyway. Ick.
  • Speaking of which, the show’s mean girls belong to an abstinence club where they scheme behind closed doors about how to exert power over boys by denying them sex. This scene, to me, seemed designed to show that women really are controlling, cold bitches who deserve what they get. Later, when the boys and girls were attempting to interact “chastely,” one of the boy characters simulates grinding and yells “c’mon, take it!” in a throwaway line. This is what immediately jumps to mind when the writers think of sex–for women, it’s a mind game, and for men, it’s a push to dominate against a woman’s will? To me, that’s kind of depressing.
  • A wimpy, sexually frustrated male character who appeared to be portrayed as something of a Jewish stereotype was another tiresome addition to this scene. Come to that, the show’s creator appears to be none too fond of men either–a fired choir director is a druggie pedophile who harasses his students, and previews showed a presumably gay choreographer who appears to be played as a fat, bitchy, irrational, pathetic figure of fun in eyeliner. (Note that I obviously don’t think “fat” or any of those other features are negative characteristics, but you can bet this show probably does.)

Finally, the way the show’s ensemble is set up is fairly ridiculous. OK, to be fair, many TV shows contain a white character or couple around which the entire plot revolves, with a supporting group of minority characters who exist mainly to make the cast look “diverse,” but sometimes attempts are made to alter this structure or present it in a more subtle manner. Not on Glee! Nope–you have the patented characters of black girl, gay guy, Asian girl, and disabled guy all literally backing up the white main character and leading man. Furthermore, it would seem that Rachel’s dark hair is meant to symbolize her status as unpopular misfit (in opposition to her blonde head-cheerleader nemesis)–never mind that she is still white, thin, pretty, and otherwise TV-perfect in every way–so the show doesn’t really even break the mold that the golden girl or couple must always be not only white but blond to boot.

The black singer’s personality seems to consist entirely of “loud diva,” and the rest of the characters have not really been given personalities to speak of yet. I suppose they could be playing this structure so blatantly as a means of satirizing the white-lead/minority-supporting-cast structure, but personally, I am not really seeing that.

In any case, this show is on probation for me. Treating the characters like actual human beings deserving of a baseline level of respect would go a long way toward helping the show live up to its own hype, in my opinion.

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