Friday, June 25, 2010

Gaga for feminism

Last week a Facebook friend posted a link to a New York Times Opinionator post that claims, "It’s easy to construe [Lady] Gaga as suggesting that frank self-objectification is a form of real power." The author, Nancy Bauer, discusses Lady Gaga not as a feminist heroine but questions if her bizarre performances are "an expression of Lady Gaga’s strength as a woman or an exercise in self-objectification." The discussion takes a couple different forms--first, Bauer relates Gaga's highly sexual antics to worries that women of our age have been hearing over and over since the age of ten: young girls in modern society face pressure from the evil media to be skinny, pretty, submissive, etc.
Visit an American college campus on a Monday morning and you’ll find any number of amazingly ambitious and talented young women wielding their brain power, determined not to let anything — including a relationship with some needy, dependent man — get in their way.  Come back on a party night, and you’ll find many of these same girls (they stopped calling themselves “women” years ago) wielding their sexual power, dressed as provocatively as they dare, matching the guys drink for drink — and then hook-up for hook-up.
Lady Gaga idealizes this way of being in the world.  But real young women, who, as has been well documented, are pressured to make themselves into boy toys at younger and younger ages, feel torn.  They tell themselves a Gaga-esque story about what they’re doing.  When they’re on their knees in front of a worked-up guy they just met at a party, they genuinely do feel powerful — sadistic, even.  After all, though they don’t stand up and walk away, they in principle could.  But the morning after, students routinely tell me, they are vulnerable to what I’ve come to call the “hook-up hangover.”  They’ll see the guy in the quad and cringe.  Or they’ll find themselves wishing in vain for more — if not for a prince (or a vampire, maybe) to sweep them off their feet, at least for the guy actually to have programmed their number into his cell phone the night before.  When the text doesn’t come, it’s off to the next party.
Then Bauer takes a philosophical turn, discussing self-objectification in the context of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
When it comes to her incredibly detailed descriptions of women’s lives, Beauvoir repeatedly stresses that our chances for happiness often turn on our capacity for canny self-objectification.  Women are — still — heavily rewarded for pleasing men.  When we make ourselves into what men want, we are more likely to get what we want, or at least thought we wanted.  Unlike Sartre, Beauvoir believed in the possibility of human beings’ encountering each other simultaneously as subjects and as objects.  In fact, she thought that truly successful erotic encounters positively demand that we be “in-itself-for-itself” with one another, mutually recognizing ourselves and our partners as both subjects and objects.  The problem is that we are inclined to deal with the discomfort of our metaphysical ambiguity by splitting the difference:  men, we imagine, will relentlessly play the role of subjects; women, of objects.  Thus our age-old investment in norms of femininity and masculinity.
I think my main beef with this article is that Bauer bases her "self-objectification" judgment of Gaga on 1) Gaga's unclear personal view of feminism and, most annoyingly, 2) Gaga's (and Beyonce's) skimpy outfits in the "Telephone" video.
Gaga plays a model-skinny and often skimpily dressed inmate of a highly sexualized women’s prison who, a few minutes into the film, is bailed out by BeyoncĂ©.
The man who drools at women’s body parts is punished, but then again so is everyone else in the place.  And if this man can be said to drool, then we need a new word for what the camera is doing to Gaga’s and BeyoncĂ©’s bodies for upwards of 10 minutes.
Bauer does acknowledge that "Gaga is explicit in her insistence that, since feminine sexuality is a social construct, anyone, even a man who’s willing to buck gender norms, can wield it," but she seems to view provocative dress as a big no-no for young ladies like ourselves and Gaga.

(Her assumptions the first paragraph I quoted are particularly annoying to me. I am a young lady in college with a reasonable amount of talent and ambition, wielding my brain power and all that. I haven't replaced "woman" with "girl" and though I like boys (or men) I've never desired or felt pressured to become a "toy" for one of them. And I'm not matching all the boys hook-up for hook-up, even if I choose to wear a low-cut top and drink. Also, like Gaga, I am thin and well-proportioned. That doesn't mean either of us has become a prisoner of an evil oppressive beauty standard. So butt out and stop assuming things about my life/worldview/self-esteem. That brain power I'm wielding? It enables me to do things I call Not Being Stupid and Identifying The Difference Between Lady Gaga And Real Life. Who is telling journalists these lies about us?)

I think the "Telephone" video makes it awfully clear that Gaga and Beyonce aren't doing what Bauer discusses using Sartre and Beauvoir, that women are "engaging in [sex], especially when it’s unidirectional, as a form of power." In fact, they're doing the opposite. They may be in a "highly sexualized" environment but they're not doing a damn thing to please any men. They happen to be kinda busy. (K-kinda busy, k-kinda busy.)
Usually when we walk about pop songs objectifying women we mean rap and hip-hop lyrics that talk about women's body parts, compare women to cars and other material items, encourage them to perform sexual favors, blah blah blah. It seems clear to me that Gaga's lyrics, costumes, and videos aren't presenting her as another ass to slap; she's all about kicking ass.
Bonus link, one of my faves: Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Seventeen Magazine Project

A girl blogs about her personal, month-long experiment of following the "gospel of Seventeen Magazine." Check it out!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Quick Hit: South African doctor invents female condoms with 'teeth' to fight rape

So, a link to this news story just popped up in my Facebook news feed with the headline "South African doctor invents female condoms with 'teeth' to fight rape." The condom was invented by Dr. Sonnet Ehlers in South Africa in consultation with engineers, gynecologists, and psychologists:

The woman inserts the latex condom like a tampon. Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man's penis during penetration, Ehlers said.

Once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it -- a procedure Ehlers hopes will be done with authorities on standby to make an arrest.

While I want to view this as good news--a way to empower women, a story of women empowering women (it's far too rare to see a news story about a woman inventing a nifty gadget, in my opinion)--I have very strong reservations. The Rape-aXe (yes, that is its actual name) reinforces the damaging view that rape is a "women's issue" rather than a societal problem and seems likely to focus attention on individual incidents rather than the underlying social structures that lead to violence against women. Furthermore, I can see far too easily how it can be used in victim-blaming: "If she really didn't want to be raped, she should have worn a Rape-aXe. To protect herself." And let's not forget that 77% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows--and isn't necessarily likely to view as a potential rapist, meaning women may not be wearing these when they could be most helpful.

So overall, I guess I'm glad this product should available sometime in the near future, especially since it prevents fluid exchange, providing women with protection from the more physical aspects of rape--pregnancy and STIs--but it's a tragic statement about the world we live in that it's going to find a market.

Update: There's also a really interesting and vibrant discussion happening at one of my favorite blogs, Shakesville.

Summer Reading

I've been the token feminist among my friends at home since I got into a fight about feminism at the lunch table at the mature and wise age of 15. It usually means nothing more than comments about leg hair, but this summer some of my friends are starting to think I might be onto something. I've gotten a few requests from both men and women for some reading recommendations. I sent my friend Andrew off to Colorado with Feminism is for Everybody and a few articles. My friend Olivia is getting started on Yes Means Yes! which is less of a feminist intro and more of a generally awesome book.

The books, articles, and zines I've focused on most recently have been pretty theoretical and specific; in other words, they wouldn't make great introductions.
But I'd like to know what you all would recommend. This could also spill over into additions to the Crozier book collection, which we're hoping to make better use of next year.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Women, Society and the Sciences: Smarts or Socialization?

Generally, there’s a fair amount of hand-wringing over the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, especially now that the myth that “women can’t do science” has been dispelled—or has it? In the Science section of last week’s New York Times, John Tierney wrote about a recent finding that high-achieving boys outnumber girls substantially in the top 5% of math and science scores on the SAT and ACT, and that they have done so in a relatively stable way for the past twenty years.

In light of a piece of legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives which would “require the White House science adviser to oversee regular ‘workshops to enhance gender equity,’” Tierney asked,

1) Would it be safe during the “interactive discussions” for someone to mention the new evidence supporting [former Harvard University president Dr. Lawrence H. Summers’] controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

2) How could these workshops reconcile the “existence of gender bias” with careful studies that show that female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants?

In his exploration of the first of these questions, however, Tierney employs a relatively narrow definition of bias. He fails to demonstrate understanding of the subtler implications of experiencing a biased environment as a minority. Although that’s not exactly surprising, it is troubling, because the message I heard growing up wasn’t that women can’t do science—it’s just that they don’t. Bill Nye the Science Guy is just that, after all: a guy.

A girl who never had a female science teacher or pediatrician might never picture herself in that role. And a girl who knows from the age of twelve that she wants to be a second-grade teacher isn’t going to be motivated to try as hard to do well in her science class, because it’s never going to serve her, and it doesn’t hold her interest. In that way, the gender disparity in STEM fields has a tendency to be self-reinforcing.

The bottom line is that if Tierney looks for bias against women in STEM fields, I don’t think he’s going to find very much of it. The problem isn’t keeping women who enter STEM fields from leaving; it’s getting them to enter in the first place.

Getting women to enter STEM fields in the first place circles back to the natural-aptitude argument. Certainly there are different kinds of intelligences, and it may be that different innate aptitudes are distributed differentially between the genders. As a society, we treat boys and girls radically differently literally from the day they are born, and there is no way to predict how that may influence what happens in the classroom later on.

To me, it seems far more likely that the way we socialize male and female children encourages one kind of thinking in boys, one that may be more suited to STEM fields, and another kind of thinking in girls. I don’t think it’s valid to even consider the question of natural aptitude in a society where the vast majority of toys and children’s books are gendered, because there’s no telling what kind of effect that has on the brain. We don’t have anything to compare it to.

At the very least, we ought to hold off on drawing biologically-based conclusions until the gender gap in math and science scores is eliminated. Even if the theory that greater variability leads to more male super-achievers in math and science holds water, the gender gap in mean scores speaks to me of the tremendous and well-documented influence of socialization on achievement.

This week’s follow-up piece supports the conclusions I drew from last week’s column, and features this gem in the closing paragraphs: If more women prefer to study psychology and medicine than physics and engineering, why is that a problem for Washington to fix? I’d love to see more girls pursuing careers in science (and more women reading science columns), but I wish we’d encourage their individual aspirations instead of obsessing about group disparities. While I don’t necessarily think that mandatory workshops are going to fix the problem—because, really, mandatory workshops?—this reads like he intentionally missed the point.

In other words, Mr. Tierney, your privilege is showing. Until we can demonstrate unequivocally that various forms of systemic bias in our education and employment structures have have zero effect on the apparent finding that "more women prefer to study psychology and medicine," this is systemic discrimination, which makes it absolutely Washington's problem.

(Further reading: Dr. Isis takes on Tierney here.)

Sadly, Men Still Dominate

Great article! I have to say I do still think this is all a little ridiculous. Women are dominating very few fields. As the article says, "Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities." Even in professions men are supposedly not "suited for," they always seem to hold the highest positions.

Here's an example: females make up a very small percentage of restaurant chefs. You can even see this reflected on the food network. The female chefs that come to mind include Rachel Ray (30 Minute Meals) and Sandra Lee (Semi-Homemade Cooking). Obviously, they are not portraying females as highly-skilled chefs. Check out the list of chefs and programs: The number of shows hosted by women with "easy" or something about home in the title is mind-blowing. Other examples include teaching (women are elementary school teachers while men are college professors) and the medical field (women are nurses, men are doctors). Of course, these are generalizations, but I really don't think women are climbing the ranks and reversing roles so quickly as "The End of Men" claims.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The End of Men?

Meg, thanks for posting that! But I'm wondering--what about this article has you enraged? That "women’s rising power is perceived as a threat"? The suggestion that the present upset of the "traditional" system is sinister--that we new, strong, educated women are going to cause the downfall of modern society by crushing men's intelligence/libidos/dominance? The question, "But what if equality isn’t the end point?" That--had the author been someone other than Hanna Rosin--a reader might perceive the article's tone as pat-on-the-head-aren't-you-cute condescending? That our own Jennifer Delahunty presents some controversial issues in the world of college admissions? Do you believe that the article inflates the American woman's actual progress? (Not to mention that the key word there is "American"--these claims hardly apply worldwide.)

I don't think that women are quite as close to dominant-sex status as Rosin suggests. (If we're such hotshots, where are our women presidents?) But the realization that women are earning a majority of college degrees and becoming the majority of the workforce isn't 1) new or 2) terribly upsetting. I saw Rosin discuss this article on The Colbert Report and she made some good points--that these are mostly observations, and we should consider them as signs that we should consider certain changes in the workplace, such as better access to childcare. Here's the clip, complete with Stephen microwaving his boxers:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Testoster-Ruin - Hanna Rosin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

The suggestion that women are better suited to a post-industrial economy seems defensible, but what precisely women are "suited for" has been up for debate for a while. We used to be "suited for" staying at home to cook, clean, and raise the kids.

I think that what's closer to the truth is that humans are on the whole pretty darn good at adapting, and we can generally find ourselves to be suited for whatever economy we find ourselves in; our culture (and our perceptions of gender) evolve with it. Maybe right now, in 2010, women are better prepared by the culture of the new millennium to take on a post-industrial society. That doesn't mean the next century is going to see us taking over in some kind of all-castrating Lady Revolution.

But Rosin also said--prompted by Colbert--that we might start seeing affirmative action favoring men. Obviously it's already happening in college admissions offices. Is that what the fight for equality is going to become? Some kind of seesaw between the privileged and those in need of a leg up?

Saturday, June 12, 2010


My Dad gets The Atlantic and the cover had this article. I was enraged! See what you all think.