Thoughts on taking up space

May 22, 2009 § 6 Comments

A family friend of mine is a professor at Barnard College, and was telling me about their fantastic graduation ceremony the other day. Hillary Clinton was the commencement speaker (jealousy!); a few students presented speeches as well.

Sarah Nager, the winner of a speaking competition, gave the “Academic Reflections” address, in which she drew parallels between the amount of space women are allowed to take up literally (on the subway) and figuratively (in leadership roles and in society at large). She praised Barnard as an institution that “does not limit the amount of space women take up.”

Nager’s speech directly addresses a double standard that I – and many other feminists – think about a lot. Quite simply, guys are encouraged to be there, to make their presence known. Male body ideals – tall, chiseled, formidable – teach men to value strength and self-reliance. They should stand up straight, look people in the eye, shake hands firmly. They should be able to defend themselves.

Women, on the other hand, always need a man to protect them. We fall back on the scientific “proof” that men are physically stronger than women (which is true. Men, on average, can bench press more weight – but then again, most women can grow a child using only their bodies. Interesting what society deems important, isn’t it?), but in actuality these roles are socially constructed and implemented. The activities that girls are most often encouraged to pursue, like dance and gymnastics, are of course physically demanding, but they are cloaked in an air of performance and superficiality. Girls should move their bodies not to become stronger or have fun, but because they’ll look pretty for an audience.

This idea goes farther than just physical activity. It extends to other spheres as well:

  • Body odor: Deodorant marketed to men often has a strong, “spicy” scent, while women’s deodorant is mild and meant to be concealed.
  • Body fluids: Semen is socially acknowledged and talked about casually. Vaginal fluids and menstrual blood, on the other hand, are supposed to be wiped up as fast as possible and kept hidden from the world.
  • Posture: In my experience, strikingly tall men carry themselves with pride and confidence, whereas similar women tend to slouch.

How can we show girls – and perhaps more importantly, show ourselves – that taking up space is not only okay, it is a vital part of maintaining our physical presence and autonomy? What do y’all do to assert your physical, and consequently intellectual, selves?

Rhyming Revenge

May 1, 2009 § 2 Comments

By some very cool and strange coincidence, it seems to be spoken word weekend here at Women’s Glib. I just got back from the Urban Word NYC Poetry Slam at Cooper Union where I saw Zora from Bi-Racial Hair perform, as well as other dizzyingly talented artists.

I left the slam inspired by the last line of the second brawl: “Femininity does not equal negativity.” On the train home, I used that line as an opener to write my own thoughts into rhyme. Miranda and I must have been sharing a brain today because when I got home to finally post about my bad-ass inspiration, I found the spoken words illuminated on the surface of feminist action.

And so begins this weekend series, Rhyming Revenge. This is my first post, but every weekend, watch out for some feminist-configured words to combat the sexism we face daily. This first Rhyming Revenge is dedicated to anti-feminist lawmakers who believe women are not capable of making their own choices.

And so the rhymes begin…

Can we realize femininity does not equal negativity

when we grasp the power 

which is rightfully ours

from selected white men in black suits

who carry a void without truth

in soulless laws which embody the flaws

of patriarchal bile from which we defile

and run amock because we need not a cock

to know use of our tongues and heart of our minds

to claim our bodies for ourselves;

we find they heed possession of no one else

yet our beliefs are not felt 

without slaps on the wrist or a metaphorical fist?

We are put in our place and perpetually abased,

yet we have the same skin and are not considered equal kin

due to fragility of our hearts,

going unrecognized for other parts;

we have fists 

that can slap these laws on their wrists,

our choices no longer yonder:

hear our voices thunder!

Women’s Work In The New Economy

March 31, 2009 § 5 Comments

Another guest post by Joel, cross-posted at Citizen Obie.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of women work trends since I saw an earlier post here a while back about how feminists were reacting to the stimulus package, and what they thought it offered to support industries with greater representation of women (social work, education, health.) My concern was not so much with the sectors the stimulus emphasized, I believe that fomenting green manufacturing, construction, transportation, and agriculture is going to be fundamental to getting ourselves out of this economic mess we’re in and moving us towards an era of sustainable prosperity and equity. But where do women fit in this agenda? Green-collar jobs, the premier jobs of the new economy, are in construction and manufacturing (and I pray also urban agriculture,) sectors with little female representation. I’m going to assume that construction and manufacturing will remain important and vibrant for years to come, in which case my concern is how do we promote gender equity in those fields? How do we make sure that women share in the vision of the new economy, how do we de-stratify the sectors with the greatest potential for growth?

I thought about it even more when the news got out that the White House vegetable garden is Michelle Obama’s initiative. I love Michelle Obama, I love organic vegetable gardens, and I love children’s health and nutrition, but I was intrigued by the historic association between first ladies and health (specifically children’s health) advocacy. I wouldn’t call it anything as strong as a major concern, but what does it mean for powerful, fiercely intelligent women (in Michelle Obama’s case, a lawyer) to be relegated to work with overtones of domesticity? On the other hand, maybe I ought to rethink my own gendered assumptions about what it means to work with children and health. Maybe it is my own male bias and set of assumptions that I imply above that children and health issues might be ‘beneath’ a fiercely intelligent woman. In this case, how will we encourage (assuming we want to) the disassociation of particular fields with the different genders? And if such associations remain tenacious, what opportunities are available to women in the revolutionary restructuring of the educational and health care systems, as called for in Barack Obama’s agenda? Energy, education, and health are the major focuses of Obama’s agenda. Is it okay for energy to be a primarily masculine field, with education and (to a lesser degree) health to be primarily feminine?

Finally, here are a few articles on the immediate effects of the recession on women’s economic lives. The first is on the likely increase of domestic disputes as a result of male unemployment. It suggests that recessions, with major job loss for male-bodied individuals, breeds resentment as males fail to fulfill their ‘breadwinner’ roles, compounding the other stresses of over-worked women struggling to fulfill their roles as double-time workers and mothers. The second is on women losing their jobs and moving into the sex entertainment industry. And here’s one on the unfortunate likelihood that pregnant women and new mothers may be more likely to face unemployment, despite the illegality of discriminating against mothers. Overall, it looks as though the recession and the vast restructuring of the economy (I hope) will have major effects on perceptions of domesticity and women’s work roles. I hope some of you are as interested in these broad trends as I am. I think they definitely point to a very particular landscape in the contemporary feminist movement.

Irritating Bleach Ad

March 30, 2009 § 4 Comments

So today I saw an unnerving ad for a bleach product whose name and manufacturer currently escapes me. 

This ad, which I also cannot find online to link here (I’m sucking today), features a man lecturing a group of eager-to-please, neurotic women. What have these bad, bad, ladies done wrong? They have used bleach on their clothes that specifically say NO BLEACH. *GASP*

Thank God that we have whatever-company-makes-said-bleach to shame us about our bad housekeeping habits.

But it’s not really the shaming that gets me (although that’s really lovely). What I find particularly gross about this ad is that is features a MAN telling a group of WOMEN about this heavenly new science-y detergent. Because women, with their simply lady minds (I love you, Haskins) couldn’t possibly figure out that bleach shouldn’t touch non-bleach clothes! That’s beyond us, duh.

It would be awesome if the commercial were somehow teaching people that men can also pitch in around the house (something we never see in the commercial sector), but I don’t think it is making that statement at all.

But then, of course, when I step back from it all, I wonder whether or not I’m projecting feminist issues all over the place. But I guess that someone has to spew ‘agenda’ all over the place, because that helps us get to what’s really important. I don’t know. What do YOU think?

First Lady in the Garden

March 19, 2009 § 6 Comments

This is Joel‘s second guest post on Women’s Glib. Read his first post here.

Welcome news to environmentalists, the sustainable food crowd, and those concerned over rising levels of childhood obesity: the White House plants a vegetable garden.  As a climate movement head and sustainable food advocate, I am thrilled that the first family is sending this message.  Michael Pollan and many others had called for an organic garden on the White House lawn (now we just need some solar panels on its super-insulated, green roof, but I digress) and I think it is a great symbol, a living manifesto of eating healthy, green, and locally.

I am curious though, about what message it’s sending that this is Michelle Obama’s initiative (granted, the article makes clear that the garden will mostly be worked by White House staff, and Sam Kass, an assistant chef, but the symbolism is there).  Let me first say that I love Michelle, I thought her speech at the convention was one of the most moving things I saw this election cycle (and there was a lot to be moved by) and I’m very impressed by her as a woman who has managed not to give an inch, in my estimation, in her self-determined image as an incredibly strong woman and independent individual.  As a role model to women (and black women no less) and an embodiment of the ‘modern-woman-who-has-it-all’ image: she’s a mother, she’s a professional, she’s intelligent, she’s funny, she’s gorgeous, she has incredibly-well-sculpted arms. I am amazed by her story, her crafting of image, and in a less crass sense, her strength and resilience.

So what does it mean that she’s taking on this debatably domestic role?  I’m not trying to stake out a point – I don’t have one – but I am curious as to the interactions between these images and messages.  I’m glad that the Times included the line about this project being something the whole family will contribute to (including Barack), but what are the ramifications of the first lady as a figurehead, as an advocate of health (particularly children’s health) and a home garden?  The garden is as much about Michelle’s attitude towards Sasha and Malia’s (and by extension, the nation’s) diet and lifestyle as it is about the environment, probably more so.  This goes kind of beyond the garden thing, first ladies are often called on to advocate for health and children’s issues, as though only women have the authority to speak on children, and as though it’s their particular issue.  I don’t think anybody can deny that highlighting sustainable, local, healthy food is a worthy goal, but I guess in general I’m curious about the role of the first lady.  How do you behave, knowing the symbolism of your actions and image, as a strong woman in the White House but without an official executive position?

Peace y’all, it’s good to be pitching something here at Women’s Glib.

- Joel

Why is the masculine androgynous?

March 18, 2009 § 2 Comments

Warning: This post is a bit of a wordy stream-of-consciousness rant. Read at your own risk.

Pants are androgynous; they are worn by both women and men. Women, however, have the options of wearing pants, skirts, or dresses. According to a gendered society, men may wear only pants. Thus, pants are both masculine and androgynous. While a woman is socially permitted to wear pants in a setting that is inclusive of both genders, when she wears pants in a setting in which she is the only woman, she is ostracized, called “butch,” “revolutionary,” or even — goodness forbid — a feminist.

Hillary Clinton is famous for her pantsuits. A few years back, I saw the First Ladies exhibit at the New York Historical Society. There was a clear definitive statement made by juxtaposing Dolly Madison’s petticoats next to Hillary Clinton’s infamous pantsuit (the only one black fashion item featured in the exhibit, I might add). 

My mom works for a community center and she wears a pantsuit to work almost every day. I have not heard anyone comment on her clothing choice, let alone name her a member of “the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.”

I realize that my mom works in a coeducational facility, when Hillary Clinton, a US senator and former presidential nominee works in an old boy’s club. The pantsuits, a symbol of both masculinity and androgyny (i.e. social and political power). Pantsuits are androgynous; they can be worn by both men and women on a regular basis yet there is an exception when women enter “men’s clubs.” These include patriarchal institutions such as government, the military (America’s eyes have not gotten used to seeing women in uniform), and Wall Street. In these “men’s clubs,” the androgynous becomes masculine because there cannot be androgyny when only one gender is represented in these institutions.

Then, when a woman finally discovers the password to one of these men’s clubs, the masculinity that can be construed as androgyny is so deeply rooted that anyone (like Hillary Clinton) who invades that men’s club as an non-accepted member becomes a source of shock. This shock factor does not stem from the fact that she dresses like men; it happens when she dresses in a way that men happen to dress in as well.

Men do not have an exclusive claim on pants. They have no claim over this piece of clothing just as they have no claim over the institutionally sexist occupations they may inhabit. 

The patriarchy sets up a society so that what men do/wear/customize is the standard. For women, this standard is fooled into being androgynous, though it is in fact a patriarchal setup to make women feel included. However, whenever women include themselves in this standard, they are considered impostors, the only ones in costumes at a sexist Halloween party.

Michael Kimmel, in “Masculinity As Homophobia,” writes “We think of manhood as innate, residing in the particular biological composition of the human male, the result of androgens or the possession of the penis.” 

Androgens are the hormones that control the development of masculine characteristics. The common root of this hormone and the term “androgynous” is not a coincidence. Androgens literally contain everything that, without society’s interference, biologically differentiates male from female. Androgynous, the embodiment of both male and female characteristics, is in its social reality the comparison of female characteristics to the standard of male ones. 

Is this comparison fair? Must masculine be the standard for women to live up to and then be ostracized by? Can’t all people be accepted for who they are and with the choice to be who they want to be?

Vampire tampons…vampons? Tampires?

March 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

o_b_tampons

Check out this fucking creepy tampon ad from Switzerland.

Yes, his fangs are applicator-less tampons. Via Copyranter:

Not at all surprisingly, the creative team from Switzerland that dreamed up this bloodcurdling o.b. tampon ad is all-male. But at least, like this French shark-infested Tampax ad and unlike every American tampon ad ever made, they’ve acknowledged that blood does in fact come out of a vagina.

So true. Isn’t it depressing that our only options are terrifying, desperate ads like this one or ads that shy away from blood, hormones, and the v-word at all costs? If you could design an ad for menstrual products, what would it feature?

UPDATE: I got an email from the Client Service Director of this ad agency. He said that this is “an unpublished ad that will never go on air and should not have been on the net,” and asked me to remove it. I’m not going to take it down, but let it be known that this ad was never officially aired for public marketing.

Target Women: Barbie

March 15, 2009 § 1 Comment

Cara at Feministe has the latest Target Women segment, in honor of Barbie’s 50th birthday earlier this week. She also links to Sarah Haskins’ hilarious op-ed in the Washington Post on the same subject. The whole package prompted me to draft this short note, which has been a long time coming:

Dear Sarah Haskins, will you be my bride? Love, Miranda

That is how I feel about this magnificent lady. And did anyone catch Kristen Wiig’s excellent Barbie impersonation on SNL’s Weekend Update last night? I can’t find a video yet, but I’ll pass one along when I do. (Update: Phoebe tracked down a clip here.)

In which I ramble about what it means to be real

March 9, 2009 § 9 Comments

This article about a “female athlete who was really a man” has me thinking about “real” identities.

Xiao Nan’s extraordinary athletic performances in schools and in provincial and national competitions, won her great honour and free access to university education.

Inside, she felt confused: “I felt I often had an impulse or desire for women instead of men. And my body is more like a man than a woman.”

I can understand why Xiao would be confused. The culture in which we live has a narrow definition of what it means to be a woman, and that definition has little tolerance for women who desire women and women with “masculine” bodies. It has little tolerance for any female body that’s not white, tall, thin, big-breasted, clear-skinned, and hairless – and even attempts to subvert that constricted definition, like the “real women have curves” mantra, can leave not-so-curvy women like myself in the dark.

So, just to throw this out there: you can be a real woman if you desire women. You can be a real woman if your body is considered by society to be more masculine than feminine, or if you have curves, or if you don’t have curves. You can be a real woman if you don’t like pink. You can be a real woman if you don’t wear skirts. You can be a real woman if you don’t shave your legs. You can be a real woman if you don’t have a vagina. You can be a real woman if you don’t have breasts. You can be a real woman if you have short hair. You can be a real woman if you don’t like to cook. You can be a real woman if you don’t want to get married. You can be a real woman if you want to be a housewife. You can be a real woman if you like to hunt. You can be a real woman if you don’t menstruate.

The only thing you need to do to be a real woman is to self-identify as a woman.

Silvia and I talked about this issue a few days ago, in a different vein. We were pretty excited about an upcoming opportunity to take a group photo of all the Women’s Glib writers to post on the site, and we joked that once readers saw her, they wouldn’t believe she’s Latina. But she is, and that has less to do with the fact that her parents were born in Cuba and more to do with the fact that she identifies as such.

She’s the one who gets to say whether or not she is Latina. It is no one’s place but yours to tell you what you are.

That’s one reason why I was intrigued by the title of the article: “female athlete was really a man.” I wondered, what do they mean by “really?” What is proof enough that you are “actually” a man, besides you saying that you are a man?

Xiao had a check-up at a local hospital and the result confirmed she had male chromosomes.

Ahhhh. This must be what they mean by “really” being a man. So despite Xiao living for years as a woman, and self-identifying as a woman, a simple medical test was all it took to erase that self-determined gender? Silly me. I thought that we got to decide our own identity fates.

Is this what gender has come to? That your identity is not defined by you, as a result of any combination of factors like chromosomes, hormones, physical characteristics, personality traits, socialization, and personal preferences – but by a doctor’s pronouncement? I’m disturbed that someone’s life experiences and their self-determined identity can be so easily erased in the eyes of this news source.

He is now living as a man and has begun a course of sex change surgery at Sichuan Xichan Plastic Surgery Hospital which will take nine months.

“The first thing I want to do after the surgery is to go swimming, wearing only boxer shorts,” Xiao told Chengdu Business Daily.

I want to make it clear that I support any action Xiao does or doesn’t take in a situation like this one. He’s chosen to live as a man and opted to get surgery, and I respect that completely – because I can only assume from this article that it is what makes him most comfortable, and it is his choice. His choice isn’t what bothers me about this article. What irks me is the implication, from the reporter’s and editor’s words, that the labels other people place onto our beings matter more than the identities we choose for ourselves – that the experiences we’ve accumulated and the convictions we’ve strengthened can be nullified by society so quickly and so thoughtlessly.

This sort of labeling has serious potential to invalidate the identities of many marginalized people in the eyes of society. Just a few examples of where this fucked up logic might lead (or has already led):

  • She says she’s a trans woman, but she hasn’t got a vagina so she’s not really a woman.
  • He says he’s bisexual, but he only wants to hook up with men, not date them “seriously,” so he’s not really bisexual.
  • She tells everyone she’s black, but she’s actually biracial. She’s lived with her white mom for her entire life, so she’s not really black.

Not okay.

I can’t wait for the time when our self-defined identities are taken as truth by others, without criticism or controversy. I’m glad that Xiao appears to have found identity harmony and lost his sense of inner confusion – but I’m pissed that the article defines him as a “real” man because of his chromosomes rather than because of his personal convictions.

Womanly Sports?

March 4, 2009 § 3 Comments

Check out this article that ran in the New York Times today about women’s soccer in a distant country I hold dear: Turkey. 

Journalist Yigal Shleifer writes on the emerging prominence of women’s soccer teams in Turkey, and the challenges that the movement faces. 

Because soccer is viewed as a man’s sport, many Turkish parents are hesitant to let their daughters participate at any level. Turkish gym classes, which are usually split according to gender, often do not even include the sport in their girls’ curriculum. One worried parent of a 20-year-old female soccer player remarked:”In the beginning, we didn’t want our daughter to play…We were worried that it would affect her posture, her character, even her sexual orientation. We put her in volleyball, in track, but nothing could stop her.” Players sometimes face shouts to the effect of “go home to the kitchen” when they play, even as the sport picks up popularity and acceptance across the nation. 

Aside from the obviously sexist sentiments that emerge from the article, I noticed another important thing: the idea that sports have genders. 

So, what the hell is a woman’s sport? We already have track and volleyball….What else are us damsels fit to play? Is it stuff that won’t jiggle our wombs around too much? And what do you think defines and sustains this idea of feminine and masculine sports?

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