Did you fear I would never address the Obama/Romney election on this blog? Fear no more! The day of reckoning is here, and my ranting powers are at their full potential.
After all, it’s election time in the USA! Will we manage to survive yet another racist-ass, anti-woman, queerphobic disaster of a Republican Candidate (Mitt Romney) and elect a moderately conservative dude instead (Barack Obama)? Only time will tell!
Is Mitt Romney as horrible a slimeball as he appears? … YES!
Now, I know you don’t need me to tell you that Romney is a slimeball. And I know you don’t need me to tell you that he’s a racist, queerphobic, classist misogynist with big entitlement issues. Those things are pretty damn obvious.
But there IS something I have to tell you. Hell, I put my entire blog schedule on hold for this huge insight into the character of Mitt Romney. It’s GAME CHANGING.
You should probably hold onto something.
Or sit down.
Is a runaway Jane Austen character.
Oh yeah, I just brought in Jane Austen.
I… I think I just lost half my readership there. SORRY GUYS! I LOVE YOU! I PROMISE I’LL STOP TALKING ABOUT REGENCY LITERATURE IN MY NEXT POST. I’LL STOP MAKING VERY BIZARRE SPECULATIONS! COME BAAAAACK.
Then again, the three literature/poli-sci geeks in the room just started fist-pumping. “Austen – Romney FTW!”
And as I am a literature/poli-sci geek… well.
So. Random fact: I am totally obsessed with Jane Austen. I became an English literature student because of Jane Austen. I’ve read every novel Jane Austen ever published. I’ve read Jane Austen’s juvenilia. I’ve taken classes on Jane Austen. I’ve planned book-length projects on Jane Austen. I think about Jane Austen a LOT.
And a couple weeks ago, I was walking to the library, thinking about Jane Austen (as you do), and how interesting it is that her marriage plot, which appears so stuffy to modern readers, was actually radical and revolutionary, because she gave her female characters the right to say “No” to marriage proposals. And isn’t it interesting how this “no” always shocked male suitors? The entire thing really exposes the way the clueless male suitors felt so damn entitled to getting women… wait… you know who else seems to have that massive sense of entitlement to getting people’s support?
And I was all “OH MY GOD, I’VE GOT IT.”
Mitt Romney is the clueless suitor.
I immediately raced to twitter. “Romney,” I said. “Is like every boorish male suitor in Austen’s novels – Mr. Elton, Mr. Collins, Henry Crawford. The suitor asks the protagonist to marry him, and is shocked she could say “no, because, after all, they have MONEY. Just like Mitt Romney runs for president, and is shocked that people won’t vote for him, because after all, he has MONEY.”
I spent the rest of the day tweeting about this. People needed to know. They needed to know that Mitt Romney is a runaway Jane Austen character.
Now, I imagine you aren’t convinced by my brilliant thesis yet. Neither was I, at first. But the evidence kept piling up.
Let’s have a checklist!
1. The Longing Gaze
Jane Austen’s clueless suitors are known for gazing longingly at their object of their affection. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s longing stares at Elizabeth Bennet are so epic, they’ve given rise to the term “Firthing” (longing, silent stares) in honor of Colin Firth, the actor who portrayed Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.
And Mr. Mittens Romney, Clueless Presidential Suitor?
ALSO known for his (vaguely disturbing) longing stares!
2. Sense of Entitlement
Austen’s Clueless Suitors are always shocked that the objects of their affection actually expect them to behave WELL. Notable in the Mr. Collins proposal scene, where Mr. Collins is all “what are you talking about with your “no thank you”? I have everything a woman needs!” Or, in Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford’s total confusion at the fact that Fanny doesn’t love him: “Sure, I behaved like a total manipulative douchebag for the past two hundred pages. But I’m hot! And thus entitled to your affections!”
Or the Mr. Darcy proposal scene, where Mr. Darcy finds it incredible that Elizabeth Bennet expects him not to act like an asshole. Yo, I’m already asking you to marry me, Lady. And now you want me to act like a decent human being?
Next thing you know, these pesky women will expect you to treat them like human beings!
The suitors, in other words, are very entitled.
And Mitt Romney has a very similar sense of douchebag entitlement.
“What, you mean campaigns involve work? And scrutiny? and QUESTIONS? Yo, I’m being nice enough to run, let’s not raise expectations too high, okay?”
The poor man gets increasingly annoyed every time voters or the media dare to presume to ask basic questions, like “where are your tax returns?” or “can we get a press conference over here?” or “would you mind clarifying your position, please?” He seems to expect that we should just go along with his whole “don’t look at my record! Don’t look at my business record! Just look at the parts I want you to look at, and only as long as I want you to look at them!” schtick.
Note Ann Romney’s infamous quote on the subject of Mitt Romney’s invisible tax returns:
“We’ve given you people all you need to know!”
3. Hating Poor People
Jane Austen’s clueless suitors tend to also be giant snobs who highly dislike anyone in a lower class.
Example: Mr. Darcy, to Elizabeth Bennet, the woman he’s proposing marriage to: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”
“There are 47 percent [of Americans] who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. (…) My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Or, translated into Austen speech:
Mr. Romney, courting the American vote: “”Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of 47% of the country? To congratulate myself on the entitlement of Americans, whose conditions in life are so decidedly beneath my own?”
SEE THE SIMILARITIES?
4. Acting like people are lucky to be able to vote for/marry them?
Going along with the “sense of entitlement” thing: Austenian suitors usually act like the women they propose to are LUCKY to have someone so handsome/rich/competent asking for their hand in marriage.
Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet, asking her to marry him: “It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in its favor; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.”
And Mr. Mitt Romney? Does he ever show any of this “you people are so lucky I want to be President” attitude?
Surely not! That would be too ridiculous! And entitled and…
Ann Romney: “It is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”
(uh, HUGE CHECK) 3
5. Last, but not least: Super Awkward!
Indeed, Jane Austen’s clueless suitors tend to be catastrophically awkward and stiff (which makes them all the more hilarious).
Mr. Romney, what sayeth you to this? Are you stiff and awkward?
Well, he loves laughter. So much.
And he’s so genuine.
… Your honor, I rest my case.
… I’m telling you. It shocked me too, but it is TRUE. Mitt Romney is a clueless suitor. He has escaped from one of Austen’s novels to our world, and is now plotting his evil evil ways.
As Dani Alexis (@danialexis) reminded me on twitter: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a Presidency.”
Romney: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My desire to be President will not be repressed.” (credit for quote: @danialexis)
HIS DESIRE TO BE PRESIDENT WILL NOT BE REPRESSED!
… quite a scary concept, actually.
You know what else? If Mitt Romney is actually a Jane Austen character (which I believe I’ve thoroughly proved by this point), it also explains why Mitt Romney has so many problems with women!
Yes, indeed! For, as Mr. Collins tells us: “As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”
You see, women don’t have a problem with Mitt Romney because he’s from a party of giant misogynists who want to take us back to the stone ages. No! We’re just PRETENDING we’ve not going to vote for him, in order to increase his love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.
I JUST EXPLAINED THE GENDER GAP EVERYONE!
[She really loves him, she's just increasing his suspense]
So basically, we need Mittens Romney to ask women to vote for him a few more times, and we’ll totally change our minds!
… yeah, no.
I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions about anyone else’s political decisions, but… let’s just say I don’t think Mr. Romney’s “courtship” of my vote is going to end any better for him than Mr. Collins’ courtship of Lizzie Bennet’s hand.
Hey, Mittens, sorry, but I’m sending my absentee ballot off to the states just as soon as I find an American witness to… witness me voting.
And the name I checked?
But hey, good luck with your attempt to court all us elegant females!
And all you elegant females? And males? Be forewarned! Mitt Romney’s desire to be President will not be suppressed! He’s going to be courting you pretty hard!
And as a runaway Jane Austen character, I think there’s a good chance he’ll start organizing formal balls.
Mitt Romney Style!
** Before you ask, yes, I am aware that Mitt Romney is PROBABLY not a Jane Austen character. It’s a joke! I know it’s a joke! Moving on.
[Be forewarned that this post contains images NSFW (as do many of the links in the post)]
My younger brother, in addition to being a voracious reader, an avid SF/F fan, a social justice crusader and an all-around awesome person, is really into sports. He plays massive amounts of soccer and frisbee, he bikes, he rock-climbs, he runs, he’s a self-taught juggler – I don’t think there’s a sport he’s tried that he doesn’t enjoy. So before he left on vacation in France, he suggested that I write a blog post about sexism in sports.
I said: “Wha?”
For the record, the fact that my brother is attuned to such things at the tender age of twelve makes me very happy.
Anyways. I told him that although I thought it was an interesting and important subject, I didn’t know very much about sports, and thus did not feel qualified to comment on the matter. But I promised to keep an eye out.
And then yesterday I came across ESPN Magazine’s photoshoot for its Body Issue, entitled The Bodies We Want. Thirty six photos of professional athletes. All with bodies I want, apparently [And of course, I do want them, I just wouldn't know where to put them!]
And all nude.
I was thirty four pictures in when I went: “By Jove, I believe there’s a blog post in here!”
Because if I don’t feel qualified enough to discuss sexism in sports, I certainly do feel qualified enough to discuss sexism in the ways professional athletes are photographed. Hell, I’ve written entire essays on the gender politics of visual depictions. My academic training has to come in handy at some point, right?
Okay. So, some quick background on gender in the visual arts – I promise, this is quick and painless:
[My primary source here is John Berger's book Ways of Seeing, although many texts treat this issue]:
It’s a commonly known fact among people with an interest in visual art – painting, photography, sculptures, comic books etc. – that in the western art tradition, men have typically been portrayed as active figures, while women have been portrayed as passive figures, arranged for the pleasure of the implied (male) audience.
Note how Venus’s body is turned TOWARDS the audience, despite the fact that, within the scene of the painting, she’s kissing Cupid and should thus be turned towards him. Instead of being an active agent, in other words, she’s displayed to appeal to the audience.
And here, in a 20th century piece of comic art, we’ve got Rogue and Gambit kissing. But while Gambit’s pose makes perfect sense in the context of the kiss, Rogue’s… does not. Unless she has a broken back. Or unless there are two women in that picture, one of whom is hiding her head under Gambit’s cloak. Or unless it’s normal to simultaneously turn your body towards AND away from someone you’re trying to kiss.
Rogue, of course, is in the classic “brokeback” pose, where a woman’s body is contorted bizarrely so that the (presumed straight male) reader will be able to see both her boobs and her butt.
Ahem. Now that we have the art history out of way, let’s get back to sports, shall we?
On the surface, I would have expected that a photoshoot of athletes – even a photoshoot of nude athletes – would not have this “male active/female passive” problem. Because the point of this particular issue of ESPN magazine is – and I quote:
“to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god.”
Great! A photoshoot of people doing incredible, awe-inspiring things with their bodies. I’m all for it!
The nudity is a bit weird, I’ll grant you, but I suppose you have to be unique somehow.
And, for the first ten pictures or so, that’s what it was. Nude pictures (with no dangly bits) of athletes doing incredible, gorgeous things with their bodies. Women were being active. Men were being active. It was all good. The feminist rage was contained.
Wait, what? Suzann Pettersen is a golfer. She’s a very good golfer, in point of fact – recently ranked #2 worldwide. So why is she not golfing? Why is she sitting on a deck in front of a beach?
Is there a golf move I don’t know about? Do golfers have a tanning contest in the middle of their competition?
It’s not like she can’t do amazing things with her body:
Okay. Maybe she’d twisted her ankle. Maybe the photographer didn’t get the memo about the shoot being one where athletes show off what their bodies can do. Let’s move on.
I don’t play tennis, but I watch it regularly, and I’m pretty sure that the above is not a tennis move. Unless there’s a move where the player drops her racket, lifts up her leg and pushes her hair out of her face, then smiles seductively at the tennis ball, thereby making the tennis ball fall in love with her.
I mean, it seems awfully involved. And tricky. What if the tennis ball isn’t attracted to women?
All right, that’s it. What. The Everloving. Fuck?
That is Candace Parker, people. Candace Parker. She’s one of only four women who have successfully executed a slam dunk in the WNBA. I don’t even know basketball, and I know that Candace Parker is fucking amazing. Why is she being photographed like she’s on an episode of America’s Next Top Model? (no disrespect to Tyra Banks).
And it just. kept. going. Female athlete after female athlete was photographed not as a talented, powerful sportswoman, but as… eye candy.
Admittedly, maybe I was dreaming. Maybe just as many men had been photographed in passive poses as women. Maybe there were more active women than I thought. Maybe my feminist sensibilities were getting in the way of my critical thinking.
So I pulled out the calculator, and went for the evidence.
Before we dive into the statistics, I’ll clarify my terminology. An “active” pose is one where the athlete is performing a move related to their sport. Merely holding a ball does not make a pose active. A “passive” pose is one where the athlete is not performing a move related to their sport (or any sport).
Here are the numbers for the ESPN shoot linked above (and here):
Photographs of Men: 19
Photographs of Women: 17
Individual Male Athletes in the Shoot: 11
Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 17
Photographs of Men in active poses: 15 (78%)
Photographs of Men in passive poses: 4 (22%)
Photographs of Women in active poses: 9 (52%)
Photographs of Women in passive poses: 8 (48%)
Well, there’s clearly a big difference here. BUT.
Since there are multiple photographs of particular athletes, I decided to change the criteria to: how many athletes had at least one photograph where they were in an active pose? [For example, Rob Gronkowski has two photos in the slideshow. In one of them, he's in a passive pose, in the other, he's in an active pose].
And here’s where it gets particularly interesting:
Individual Male athletes: 11
Male athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 10 (90%)
Male athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 1 (10%)
Individual Female athletes: 17
Female Athletes with at least ONE active pose in the slideshow: 7 (46%)
Female Athletes who are ALWAYS passive: 8 (54%)
Switching it around: How many male and female athletes have at least ONE photo with a passive pose in the slideshow?
Individual Male Athletes: 11
Male Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 3 (28%)
Male Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 8 (72%)
Individual Female Athletes: 17
Female Athletes with at least ONE passive pose in the slideshow: 15 (88%)
Female Athletes who are ALWAYS active: 3 (12%)
Hookay, then. It appears that my Ultra-Feminist brain was not Making Shit Up. [Despite the fact that I am Female, and therefore cannot Math]
Let’s review, shall we?
78% of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52% of women’s do.
In addition, ten out of eleven of the male athletes in the slideshow have at least one active pose. Basically, they’re all – with one exception – being portrayed as athletes rather than eye candy.
Moreover, 72% of the men are portrayed as athletes in ALL their photos; there’s no photo where they’re just looking hot for the camera. Obviously, ESPN doesn’t feel the need to make the men eye candy.
On the other hand, over 50% of the female athletes in the slideshow have no active poses at all. Which means that over half of them are not being portrayed as athletes; they’re essentially standing there and looking pretty. And only 3 women – 12% – are portrayed ONLY as athletes. 88% of the women have at least ONE pose where they’re just looking hot for the camera (versus 28% for the men). Which suggests that ESPN DOES feel the need to make the women eye candy.
Now, I have nothing against people being pretty or people being hot. If all the guys were standing around making coy glances towards me, then we would know that the purpose of the shoot was for people to stand around and look hot. And I wouldn’t be annoyed.
The above, by the way, is an example of a male athlete in a “passive” pose – e.g: standing around and looking pretty. I will admit that he does look very pretty, but I’m too confused by the stuff on his body to appreciate it. Mud? Paint? Syrup? Gee, that must be uncomfortable…
But that’s a moot point. Because looking hot was not the purpose of this particular shoot; the shoot was supposed to portray professional athletes showing off their abilities.
Instead, the shoot is one where men show off their athletic abilities; where men are depicted as talented and powerful.
And it is a shoot where some women can show off their athletic abilities, and are portrayed as talented and powerful.
But most women in the shoot are not portrayed as powerful, talented athletes. They’re portrayed as hot chicks.
And this goes back to the art history I mentioned earlier. In western art, men are portrayed as active agents, while women are portrayed as passive receptacles for the audience’s gaze. Here, the shoot is entitled “Bodies We Want.” The Male Athletes are the bodies the (presumed male) audience wants to HAVE – active, powerful, talented. The Female Athletes, meanwhile, are the bodies the (presumed male) audience wants to LOOK AT – beautiful and passive.
Doesn’t matter what you do, ladies. You’ll always be eye candy.
I should note, of course, that female athletes who don’t fit the standard of traditional eye candy have a much harder time gaining mainstream media coverage or sponsorships. It is not surprising – though it is depressing – that Sara Robbles, the USA’s best chance at an Olympic Medal for weightlifting this year – is getting almost zero media coverage. She can lift over 568 pounds. She also lives in poverty.
For female athletes, the message is clear. It is not enough to simply be powerful, talented and hard-working. One must also be traditionally beautiful enough to qualify as eye-candy.
Here’s what I find depressing. The women in this shoot are professional athletes. They are at the top of their field. They’ve worked extraordinarily hard, they’ve acquired incredible physical abilities, they’ve got the kind of talent and determination most of us can only dream of. These are the women that children who play sports look up to. These are the women children look at and say “I want to be like that.”
But in the eyes of the sports media, these women are still only important because of the way they look, not what they can do. They’re still primarily eye candy, rather than professional athletes.
What, I ask, does a female athlete have to do in order to be portrayed as what she is: an athlete?
I don’t know. Frankly, female athletes have already jumped through every possible hoop and they still don’t get the same respect as their male counterparts. At this point, it isn’t about the athletes any more. It’s about the media, and the people who consume it.
So what does the media need to do in order to portray female athletes as athletes?
The media – and its audience – needs to realize that a woman’s worth is not determined by her appearance or by her appeal to straight men. [I'd say "or her appeal to straight men and lesbian/bisexual women, but sadly, I don't think the sports media gives a flying flunderton about the opinions of lesbian and bisexual women]
The media needs to stop worrying that if they portray a strong, powerful woman as strong and powerful, everyone will freak out. They need to stop pretending that women must perform traditional femininity 24/7 in order to be worth talking about. They need to stop worrying that their audience will think female athletes are too “butch” or lesbian. For one thing, some of those women are lesbians, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact that they aren’t trying to “catch a man” doesn’t take anything away from their athletic competence.Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of straight female athletes who aren’t trying to catch or please a man, and this is also totally fine.
[unless I'm missing something about competitive sports. Is there some kind of half-time ritual where we release men into the basketball/soccer/golf/etc. arena, and expect the female athletes to go catch them? If there is, I really must start attending more live games...]
And we collectively need to get over our fear of powerful, talented women. Yes, there are women who can run at extreme speeds. Yes, there are women who can kick a ball hard enough to take off a man’s head. Yes, there are women who can throw you on the ground and beat you to a pulp. Yes, there are women who don’t perform femininity in traditional ways. And that is okay. The world will survive.
The good news is, ESPN is already doing those things – sort of:
This. Is exactly. What I’m talking about.
Anna Tunnicliffe and Abby Wamach are two of the only women in the shoot who aren’t ever photographed as eye-candy. We see them as athletes, and only as athletes.
And these photos? Are incredible.
They show powerful athletes doing powerful, athletic things. They show the women’s talent, skill and power. They leave the audience in awe at the amount of training and determination it must take to get to that level.
And they leave no doubt in my mind that women can be portrayed as professional athletes without the entire world crumbling.
I realize feminists are supposed to hate men, but frankly, how low an opinion do you have to have of straight men that you think they would look at the above pictures and say “Aww, damn, she’s not acting like a playboy bunny?”
I, for one, am a lot of more optimistic. I think the current sports media audience can handle it. I really do. And I know that I, for one, would be a lot more likely to buy sports magazines if I thought the women in them would be portrayed as professional athletes.
So that’s what I think the sports media should do: depict athletes as athletes. It doesn’t even take a whole lot of gender analysis or consciousness raising. You just have to do your damn job, and make sure all the pictures in a photoshoot of professional athletes showing off their skills are, in fact, pictures of professional athletes showing off their skills.
In other words -
Less of this:
More of This:
And also, more Sara Robles. Obviously.
It’s not that hard. All those women ESPN hired to do the shoot – all the ones with the coy smiles and the model-esque positions – they all have incredible skills to show off.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see them portrayed as athletes?
Those are the bodies I want.
And now I’ve just gone and written an entire post about nude pictures. Because my twelve-year-old brother asked me to write about sports.
I don’t even know, man.
For shits and giggles (and for more concluding evidence), I managed to dig up a SECOND slideshow for this year’s body issue. This one with ONLY female athletes in the shoot.
You’d think things would get better there. But if you’d think that… you would be wrong.
Total Photos: 13
Photographs of the Athletes in active poses: 5 (38%)
Photographs of the athletes in passive poses: 8 (62%)
Individual Female Athletes in the Shoot: 16
Female Athletes who are active at least ONCE: 7 (46%)
Female Athletes who are NEVER active: 9 (56%)
Your honor, I rest my case.
Uh, first of all: I have a WisCon 36 Schedule? Whose life is this, and why am I living it?
WisCon, for the uninitiated, is the world’s foremost feminist science fiction convention. It’s taken place every year in Madison, Wisconsin, for the past 36 years. It’s home to the James Tiptree Jr. Award: an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.* It’s got incredible, political, in-depth programming about feminism, race, gender, class, genre, fanfiction, sexuality and writing (among others). It’s got hilarious and fun events like the annual James Tiptree Jr. auction, and the parties (the parties are amazing). It’s now an international convention, with people coming in from all around the world to celebrate being part of the feminist science fiction community.
This year the guests of honor are Andrea Hairston and Debbie Notkin. Andrea Hairston is also this year’s Tiptree Award winner (a first!) for her novel Redwood and Wildfire. If you live in Madison, or in the Madison area: drop everything and go. It is that awesome. Trust me.
Now, here’s the thing about WisCon .I am a feminist. I am also a huge science fiction fan. So you would think that WisCon would be the perfect place for me, right?
So why didn’t I know about it until last year?
And even worst – I live in Madison! It’s my hometown!
Oh, situational irony.
But it does not matter. For I came to WisCon 35; I saw WisCon 35; I, er…well, I’m not sure I conquered WisCon 35, but… let’s just say it was a life-changing experience. My first night, I was having dinner with a group of lovely people when someone mentioned I was sitting next to Geoff Ryman, a Tiptree Award (and now Nebula Award) winning author. I nearly choked on my soup. (by the way, Geoff Ryman, in addition to being an incredible writer, is also a very funny and kind human being). I discovered writers like James Tiptree Jr., Karen Joy Fowler, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson. I spent the entire weekend feeling awed and overwhelmed and overjoyed to have finally found people who were as wonderfully obsessed as I was with feminism and with science fiction.
So yes. I’m going back. And this time… I’m on the programming.
Okay, one programming item. But still. I’m terrified.
Saturday from 4:00 to 5:15, I will be giving a paper about Catherynne Valente’s duology The Orphan’s Tales. I have in every way finished writing said paper, and thus have nothing to worry about.
(and that was a tangled web of lies)
This is my first paper I’m presenting outside of my University setting, so, you know. No pressure. Also, I’m an undergrad. So why am I giving a paper?
I AM IN NO WAY HYPERVENTILATING ABOUT THIS. I feel fine, why do you ask?
THIS WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA. I have nothing to talk about! I shall be laughed out of the room. GAAAAH. WHY?
I’m starting to think I have an evil twin that just submits abstracts to things without my permission. There’s no other explanation for why I keep finding myself in this situation.
And it’s only Sunday, people! You can come here every day to witness more of my freakouts. Because they will be legion.
I may as well throw myself off a bridge now…
Ahem. If I manage to survive the paper, however, I intend to spend the rest of the convention running around to all the cool panels (this will involve breaking the space/time continuum because all the cool panels happen at the same time. I’ll figure something out) and avoiding the legions of famous authors who always show up at WisCon. As everyone knows, famous people scare me. Last year, I threw myself in a stairwell to avoid meeting Catherynne Valente at WisCon. I also ducked in a bathroom once when Nisi Shawl came my way (they both seem like lovely people. Trust me: I’m the problem). I’ll also run around to the cool parties. And the other cool things.
I’ll be there all day, every day, from Thursday evening to Monday morning, grinning like an idiot. It will be awesome (except for the paper. WHAT WAS I THINKING?)
I will also be blogging from WisCon, so my apologies, but there will be many posts next weekend, and they will all be along the lines of “OH MY GOD, BEST PANEL EVER *FREAKING OUT*”
And my brother’s coming with me (at least for part of the time) this year. Because he heard about the awesomeness of the feminist science fiction convention, and now he wants to be there too. Can you blame him? He’s threatened to drag me to the genderfloompf party (where there is gender bending), which I find patently unfair, because he can just steal one of our stepsister’s dresses, but I have to come up with an entire male-outfit ensemble from scratch. Anyone have a tux I can borrow?
Anyways! If you are planning on going to WisCon, and you want to meet up (or say hi), drop me a line. Well, not literally, because I’m not sure what that would entail. But you know what I mean. Or if you just want to say hi, I’ll be the girl grinning like an idiot (I realize that’s not too specific. Okay, how’s this: I also wear glasses!)
*(the inside joke about the James Tiptree Jr award is that it’s founders wanted to have an award named after a woman (since all sci-fi awards were named for men) – so they named it after James Tiptree Jr. Because James Tiptree Jr. is the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon)
[Much thanks to feministe, which pointed me in the direction of Roger Ebert's original blog post, and helped clarify why I found it so problematic. Frankly, they say what I'm about to say better and in fewer words. So go there! Much thanks also to my wonderful friend JYP, who studies science, literature and scientific discourse, for reading the post and helping me understand why the science was wrong]
[My apologies if this post is not as organized or coherent as usual. I'm currently battling the flu, a headache and a bad fever. Hopefully I haven't said something particularly stupid; if I have, let me know]
[Trigger Warning for gendered insults, and discussions of sexual harassment and violence]
Dear Mr. Ebert,
A couple days ago (for mother’s day) you posted a blog post entitled “Women are Better than Men.” Interesting title. Provocative title. I have a few thoughts about the ensuing article (I won’t even get into the mess in the comments), if you’ll allow me to express them? Yes? Thank you. Much appreciated.
Now, before I get into the specifics, I should say a few things. First: I’m a huge fan of your work. HUGE fan. You’re one of the people who got me to appreciate movies as an art form. I think your reviews are wonderful, and your blog posts are usually well-thought, intelligent, provocative pieces. So I’m usually inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, even when you don’t like movies I like, or you write posts that I don’t agree with.
Second: I’m a woman. I’m also a feminist. I’m a pretty active feminist, insofar as one can be: I read a lot about gender issues, I write a lot about gender issues (both on my blog and in academic settings), I think a lot about gender issues. And as a feminist and a woman, I think women are pretty damn awesome. I love talking about awesome women. I love thinking of examples of why women are awesome. I would therefore usually be inclined to agree with an article about how women are awesome. Because they are (so are men, but that’s not the point under debate at this time).
So when I tell you that I thought your article was a pretty big piece of, well, not to put it too harshly – crap – I hope you’ll understand that it’s really not personal. I really, really wanted to like your article. It was just very, very bad, and filled with the kind of problematic assumptions about gender roles I would expect from Mitt Romney rather than someone like you, who I usually think of as rather thoughtful and liberal.
You are not being the great women’s ally you think you are. I know you think you’re being flattering. You aren’t. I am not flattered. I know you think you’re being helpful. You aren’t. You’re reinforcing damaging gender norms and making them seem “natural” as opposed to socially constructed. I know that the commentators on your website think you’re being a feminist (I have no idea whether or not you personally identify as a feminist/womanist or a feminist/womanist ally). You aren’t.
Now, I’ll be clear about what I find problematic in your article. I don’t actually disagree with your idea that aggressiveness and competitiveness are over-valued in current society, and that we might be better off if we valued compassion, nurturing, diplomacy a little more etc. It’s an idea I think has some value, even if it’s a bit simplistic. I just disagree with your idea that compassion and nurturing are inherently female traits – and thus that women are better.
Let me start by saying (as a woman and a feminist) that NO, women are not better than men. Nor are men better than women. Individual women are certainly better than individual men, and there are individual men who are better than individual women. But as a monolith: NO, WOMEN ARE NOT BETTER THAN MEN.
Let me quickly summarize your argument for those unfamiliar with it: Women are nurturers and diplomats. They are “nice.” They care about others. Even though we have historically valued “competitive” and “aggressive” men, women’s nurturing niceness is actually better, particularly in modern society. Hurrah! Women are better than men!
[Spoiler alert: No they aren't]
Sadly, I don’t have time to deconstruct all of your arguments point per point. So I’ll just focus on the basics:
1. How your science is wrong
2. Why women are really “nice”
3. Why your post is a giant problem
Let’s get into the details, shall we?
1. How the Evolutionary and Scientific Data is incorrect
Your basic premise, Mr. Ebert, is that women are nurturers and diplomats, while men are competitive and aggressive. You use evolution to back this up: women started off as child-rearers and men started off as hunters, therefore women are nurturers and men are competitive.
It’s always fun when people – and here, I’m including you, Mr. Ebert – use science to explain gender roles. Particularly evolutionary science. Now, I’m not a scientist, and my scientific knowledge is pretty limited, but I do have resources: my wonderful, brilliant friend JYP, who studied science for a long time (and still studies it) and now works with scientific discourse. Most of the trenchant analysis in this section is either inspired by, or directly lifted, from a conversation we had about your blog post.
Let us begin at the beginning.
Yes, in prehistoric societies, women tended to be gatherers, and men tended to be hunters. Now, crucially, the science that tells us this is NOT a rigorous science. We’re working off of the fossil record, not video recordings. So any “men were hunters then, so it explains why men are hunters now” arguments are built on shaky ground.
But, let us assume for a minute that the basic idea (men: hunters, women: gatherers) is correct. So (for now) I’m with you for your argument that:”Men are better are hunting, and women are better at gathering.” Then you go “Men are taller, heavier, stronger. They’re not in the child-rearing business.” And that’s when you really slip off the rails.
Here’s how JYP explains it:
“He [Ebert] cited some “facts”: women gathered and men hunted. From those facts he’s suggesting that this was because women were better at raising children and men were better at hunting. DING! DING! DING! Clear moment in which his bias appears here. He’s talking about HUNTER-GATHERER societies, but somehow it hasn’t turned into skilled hunting and skilled gathering. No, it’s now about skilled hunting and skilled child-rearing. He’s assuming that women gathered because they had to take care of children and that’s [gathering] all they could manage.”
Least you missed it: You, Mr. Ebert, went from “women were better gatherers” to “women were better child-rearers.” These are not the same things. If women were innately gatherers, then maybe they had better attention to detail. Maybe they were better at finding things. We don’t know. But you immediately jump to the assumption that women were gatherers because they were child-rearers, and block out all other possibilities.
For the record, my friend’s anthropology textbook suggests that women took care of children because it was easier to watch children while gathering than to watch children while hunting. Which would contradict the “women were gatherers because they had to rear children because they were inherently child-rearers” idea. But let’s move on.
Another interesting argument of yours about prehistoric societies:”men are taller, heavier, stronger. They’re not in the child-rearing business.”
So, by that assumption, being tall, strong and heavy is inherently opposed to child-rearing activities. Thus women who are taller are not in the child-rearing business either, I would assume? And men who are short and skinny are in the child-rearing business, correct?
And child-rearing doesn’t require strength? I beg to differ, Mr. Ebert. I built more muscle babysitting than I did in five years of Tae-Kwon-Doe. Or, to put it in prehistoric terms: Have you ever tried carrying two kids while running away from a rival band of hunter/gatherers?
That might require some strength, right?
There are also many species of animals where the female is, in fact, bigger and stronger than the male. Scientists hypothesis that this increases the female’s fecundity, since she can better feed the child in the womb, and protect it outside of the womb. I quote: “The fecundity advantage hypothesis states, that a big mother is able to produce more offspring and give those offspring more favorable conditions to ensure their survival [...] Another reason why females are believed to be larger is due to the fact that they provide parental care for a substantial amount of time while the offspring matures.”
My point here isn’t that human men make better child-rearers because they are bigger and stronger. It’s that strength and size is not inherently opposed to child-rearing activities (as you seem to believe). To presume otherwise is a fallacy.
In other words: we don’t know why the prehistorics organized themselves the way they did. For one thing, to presume that it was because the “weaker” “smaller” women were inherently better at child-rearing is a fallacy. For another, they were hunter-gatherers, not hunter-nurturers. There is a difference.
Let’s keep moving along, shall we?
2. The “eugenics fallacy”
The biggest problem with your scientific argument, Mr. Ebert, is that you assume that our prehistoric selves are a blueprint for our modern-day selves. Prehistoric biology is destiny.
First, as I’ve discussed above, we don’t actually know why the prehistorics organized themselves the way they did. We’re only guessing.
Second, you assume that our societies (including our prehistoric ones) grew to accommodate our inherent biological traits. Men = hunters, women = nurturers. Our societies have thus always organized around men being hunters (and leaders) and women staying in the kitchen and nurturing the babies.
But! Biology itself is constantly evolving. Even if prehistoric women are inherently child-rearers, we are not our prehistoric selves.
To quote, once again, my friend JYP: “Ebert assumes that women’s and men’s ‘natures’ are fixed, and that social structures emerged to best accommodate their natures (…) The problem is that he’s suggesting that biology is the reason ‘women are better’, because women evolved this way, when he`s actually treating biology essentially. Biology itself is actually always evolving.”
Gasp! Biology itself is evolving? Do you have proof for this, JYP? Would you (even better) have proof that sexual differences (the very things that you, Mr. Ebert, cite as the reason women are better at nurturing) are evolving?
Continued quote: “[Ebert] He never bothers to consider, for instance, that there has been a significant decrease in [humanity's] sexual dimorphism. Yes, as I always complain, on average men are still stronger and taller (…) But biological differences between men and women are diminishing. This is probably in response to the changes he’s talking about – men don’t need to hunt anymore. So they don’t have to be as big anymore. But then, also, men don’t hunt anymore – it`s no longer more dangerous for children to be cared for by men than by women. So why are women still biologically more fit to be mothers? Breasts? Dude clearly never heard that men can lactate too. What we know of evolution tells us that there is nothing essential about biology – it’s always fluid.”
I’m going to paraphrase this again by saying: We are not our prehistoric selves. Our biology – our “inherent” natures (note that I don’t believe biology is destiny in any case, but I’m playing your game for a bit, Mr. Ebert) – is always, always changing. And, most importantly, the biological differences between men and women have greatly diminished since the prehistoric times.
One of your arguments is that breasts signal a woman’s ability to “feed” her young. But apparently, men can lactate too. So…
Now, Mr. Ebert, I can hear your argument. If we aren’t simply carbon-copy blue-prints of our prehistoric selves, then why are women more likely to be nurturers and men more likely to be competitive?
Well, there’s a pretty simple answer to that, Mr. Ebert:
3. Social Roles and Reinforcement
Here’s the thing: yes, as a rule, women (in western societies) tend to be nicer than men.
You know why that is?
Because women are expected to be nicer than men. Women are expected to be nurturers. Women are expected to be “sweet.” Women are, yes, expected to be beautiful. Women are expected to give way to others, and to be social, and to be diplomatic and compassionate.
And women who aren’t those things – who don’t conform to a narrow range of behavioral expectations – are punished.
We live in a society where gender roles are rigidly policed. Where to be a “feminine” man or a “masculine” woman is a dangerous and difficult thing. There’s nothing “inherent” about gender roles: they are learned behavior.
From childhood, girls are taught to be nice. When boys push each other and fight, we say “well, boys will be boys.” When girls push each other and fight, we tell them they’re “mean” and “inappropriate.” I’ve even seen this happen in my family – where when the boy did something inappropriate, it allowed to pass with a shrug, while when the girl did the exact same thing, she was given an instant time out.
Most girl want to be a “nice” girl. Not every boy wants to be a nice boy.
You want to know why more girls go to college than boys? Same story:
In high school, boys who goof off and get bad grades are, more often than not, let off with a shrug. Boys will be boys. They’ll sow their wild oats (seriously, WTF does that even mean?) and get serious later on in life. On the other hand, girls who goof off and get bad grades are troublemakers and (pardon my language) bitches. Girls are expected to sit down and do well. Boys… not so much
This keeps going throughout adulthood.
I’ll start with some examples from the internet, since both you and I are working in that forum.
Sometimes people wonder why women don’t participate in internet activities more. The internet, after all, is the next technological frontier; anyone who has any ambition whatsoever should have an online presence of some kind. One can only conclude that women aren’t as “ambitious” as men. Or one could remember that chat room participants with female usernames receive 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames.
Do you think examples like these could explain why women are less “ambitious” on the internet? Why women, perhaps, don’t feel as comfortable there?
I’ll give some more examples. I know a lot about online harassment (mostly not from personal experience, fortunately). But I know that when women act “aggressively” – when they argue with men, when they state their opinion, when they take on “controversial” (and even not-so-controversial) positions – they are often subject to harassment. Women on the web receive hate mail. They are called bitches, cunts and whores. They are cyber-harassed in the most vicious way possible. Some of them are cyberstalked. Some of them are actually stalked.
This does not happen to men (or at least, not nearly as often).
Mr. Ebert, if you were more likely to be attacked, dismissed and even stalked for posting your opinion online, I think you would make a big effort to be “nicer” too. I know that I, as a woman who has experienced a small measure of sexual harassment online, am always extraordinarily careful about what I write and how I write it. I once posted a joke on a friend’s webpage about President Bush. His friend misinterpreted the joke, and spent the next three weeks sending me angry instant messages calling me a “cunt” and wishing I would die. Men can get away with rants. I have to be logical and measured. If I post an angry rant, I am much more likely to be told that I’m being “hysterical” and a “bitch” rather than “passionate” or “logical.”
The internet, of course, is not the only place this happens. It’s a more-or-less commonly accepted fact that women who act competitively in the workplace are seen as bitches, while men who act competitively in the workplace are just seen as ambitious. As Andy Sachs says of her mean-but-effective boss, Miranda Priestly, in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, “if she were a man, all anyone would talk about is how good she is at her job.”
I would write more about the double standards women are subjected to in the workplace, but frankly, there’s a wealth of research out there that I don’t feel like repeating. Here’s my point: of course women are more likely to act diplomatically and compassionately in the workplace. They know they aren’t going to get anywhere if they’re considered harpies.
We live in a society where gender roles are very carefully policed. Men must act like men (I am in no way unawares that men too, must deal with a great deal of social pressure to act stereotypically masculine… I just don’t have the room to write about it). Women must act like women. If they don’t, there will be consequences. You think men don’t wear dresses because all men hate dresses? Or because they know they would be mocked and bullied for doing so? The latter is probably more accurate.
Under these circumstances, it’s basically impossible to tell whether or not women are really “nicer” than men – or if they’re just conforming to our highly-policed gender roles.
We have no idea what women are “really” “inherently’ like without these imposed gender roles. We don’t even know what men are “really” “inherently” like without these imposed gender roles.
As the great Catharine MacKinnon once said: “Take your foot off our necks. Then we will hear in what tongue women speak.”
4. Why your post actually causes problems:
I wouldn’t write you this long, somewhat angry letter, Mr. Ebert, if I didn’t think that your post was actually contributing to the problem of sexism in western society. So let’s move onto the problems, shall we?
When I first read your post my reaction was: “Oh, not this Victorian Angel-in-the-House Bullshit again.” Pardon my language. I was distraught. Let me explain, for readers who are not, as I am, obsessive literature students.
The Angel-in-the-house is a concept that arose in England and English-Speaking nations (like the USA) during the Victorian period (although it has long historical roots). It’s rather complicated and there are a lot of permutations, but here’s a basic rundown: women are better than men. Women are pure, and docile and submissive. Women are truly moral creatures. Women are the saviors of society, their guiding light, their moral paramours. Women keep society pure by: nurturing good children, by creating “pure” “uncorrupted” households, and by taking care of their husbands.
The Angel-in-the-House paradigm was used to justify keeping women out of the public sphere. Women couldn’t be in business! Women couldn’t vote! Those activities would corrupt them! And then how would society function?
(fortunately, suffragettes were like “screw this “innocent” BS” and went out and demonstrated, chained themselves to fences, went on hunger strikes and used everything from politics to violence to get their rights)
I am not kidding you, Roger Ebert. One of the main justifications for denying women the vote was saying “women are better than men” or “women are nurturers” and then adding a “so they cannot be corrupted or society will fall!”
Funny how similar that argument is to yours, isn’t it? Yes, you think that women’s “better” qualities are a justification for them to become more, not less, involved with business and politics. But you’re still playing into a long-standing and sexist tradition that calls women “better” in order to justify keeping them in their place.
I would go further than that and say that you are perpetuating sexist and harmful stereotypes.
First, your argument that women are “better” because the are “nicer” make swomen who don’t fit this paradigm seem useless (or worse). If women are better because they are “nurturers” and “nice” and “diplomatic” then what about the women who aren’t? What about women who are ambitious and ruthless and blunt? Men who fit your “competitive” mold are just “being men” and following their biological destinies (at least, according to you). Men who are nurturers are acting like the “better” sex. But women who don’t act like stereotypical women? What are they? Monsters?
I have news for you, Mr. Ebert. The gender police is in this room, and you’re their captain. Careful with the gun, I don’t like violence (and no, not because I’m a lady).
Unconsciously, you’re reinforcing the idea that women must be nice. It’s not just, for you, that women must be nice because that’s the gender norm we’ve assigned to them. No, women must be nice because that makes them better. It’s a particularly insidious form of gender policing, but it’s still gender policing.
Least you think this is a rather benign failing, I will assure you, it has a real effect. Many of the women I know have gone through periods where they either pretended to be boys, or desperately wanted to be boys because they had “masculine” qualities like competitiveness and aggression. Young girls who display stereotypically masculine traits, or who want to participate in “masculine” activities are often mocked and bullied. The entire world jumped on Angelina Jolie when they saw that her daughter’s hair was cut “like a boy’s.” I once babysat a seven year old girl who thought she was screwed up because she like science and kickball rather than barbies and cupcakes. I know lots of women who have thought of themselves as failures because they don’t live up to stereotypical norms of femininity. Women often feel horrible if they don’t care “enough” about their children, or if they fail as mothers in the smallest ways – possibly because their taught that the most valuable thing they can do is rear children.
Women have enough pressure to act “like women.” You really don’t need to add to it, Mr. Ebert.
Here’s another example. You say: ” When women give birth and spend months suckling an infant, they understand better that we all depend on each other. They’re programmed to nurture the defenseless, plan for the future, value others for their qualities rather than for their externals.”
Again, this makes women who aren’t mothers seem worthless. Many women don’t have children. Many nurturing, compassionate women don’t have children. I am not a mother. I do not plan on having children. Does this mean that I am less of a woman? Am I not part of the “better” sex? Am I a man? (I just checked, by the way, and I’m pretty sure I’m still a biological woman, despite the lack of babies).
What about women who don’t breastfeed their babies? Do they not gain that special understanding “that we all depend on each other”? Heck, I learned that we all depend on each other in Kindergarden, when my friends Sarah and Mary helped me get my crayons back from the girl who’d stolen them. But maybe that’s just me.
What about transgendered women who (usually) can’t have biological children? Are they not real women? (please don’t answer that). What about women who adopt?
There’s a whole section where you talk about how men value women for beauty and women value men for their success (by the way, there’s a social explanation for that, and it’s called “the beauty myth” and “the success myth.” Look it up). I hate to tell you this, but there’s an entire class of women out there known as “lesbians.” I know. And there are even women who are attracted to men who are also attracted to women (where I’m from, we call them “bisexuals”). There are quite a lot of them, actually, so you can’t dismiss them as some kind of statistical anomaly. They were around in prehistoric times too. How do they fit into your evolutionary ideas? Are they also nurturers? Do they value their female partners for their success or their beauty?
The whole thing reminds me of a conversation I had with my grandfather. He said he had no problem with gays or lesbians (yay) and then went on to pontificate that gay men were gay because they had an imbalance of feminine qualities. When you are gay (or lesbian) my grandfather argued, it’s because you have too many “qualities” from the other sex (not so yay).
My grandfather, like you, Mr. Ebert, assumes that qualities (like nurturing) are gendered and inherent, rather than social and changing. A woman is one thing. A man is another. If they are not, it’s because something’s gone wrong.
Again and again, you make “womanhood’ into a singular mold. Women are better because they are mothers. Women are better because they have children. Women are better because they are nurturers. You ignore the diversity of experiences that make up the female sex.
The last thing you wrote that I found deeply problematic is this:”Women were not well-adapted for leadership roles in primitive and early historical times. But our emerging world economy is becoming less based on physical strength and more dependent on intelligence and emotional balance”
First, way to be historically inaccurate, Mr. Ebert. Many hunter-gatherer societies had female leaders. There were also many, many, many successful female leaders in the “early historical” period – whatever the hell that means.
Second: great job in justifying thousands of years of women’s repression. This is, in fact, possibly the best excuse for women’s inequality I’ve ever read, since it’s entirely impersonal. “Yes, ladies, sorry we treated you like second class citizens! Sorry about the rapes and repression and the witch-burnings and the poverty and the harassment and the lack of legal rights! It was necessary, you know, for as long as we needed physical strength to survive! But now that we’re a modern society and we don’t need physical strength, you can totally join the table. You won’t take it personally, right?”
I’m sure it wasn’t your intent to justify the fact that women were oppressed historically. But you just did. And your argument could be extended to explain why women continue to be oppressed: “we still need physical strength, therefore women can’t be leaders. Sorry, ladies! But we’ll totally be ready for you in another thousand years!”
5. In conclusion
The last thing you write, Mr. Ebert, is “Yes, these are generalizations. I am more right than wrong.”
Let’s pretend that I guessed there are only forks in the silverware drawer. As it turns out, there are 35 forks and 34 knives. I’m more right than wrong.
But I’m still wrong.
And so are you.
Women are not naturally “nurturers.” Women are not naturally “nice.” Women are not naturally “compassionate.” Men are not naturally “aggressive.” Men are not naturally “competitive.” Biology is not destiny.
Women are not better than men. And men are not better than women. We’re all humans. Our “goodness” or “badness’ is no more determined by whether we identify as male or female than whether we’ve got more or less melanin in our skin.
I as a woman do not want to be put up on a pedestal. I don’t want to be told that I’m going to make the world better because of my inherent “nurturing” qualities. I don’t want to be special because I’m a woman. I don’t want to be told that I’m super-attuned to the earth because I have a period. I just want to be treated like a human being. But apparently, in today’s society, that’s too much to ask.
Mr. Ebert, I understand that you probably don’t agree with this post. I understand that you probably think I’m overreacting. I understand that you’re probably thinking ” I said they were generalizations! What else does she want from me?”
So I’ll ask you for a small favor. Just stop talking about gender issues. We can pretend this whole thing never happened. I’ll keep reading your blog and your reviews. You’ll keep writing them. But if you keep writing silly, offensive, sexist posts like these, I’ll have to stop reading your work, and that would make me sad, because I really like you, Mr. Ebert. So please stop talking about gender issues.
Alternatively, you can go on the internet and learn gender issues 101 through gender issues 501. Once you get through all of those phases (and spend a couple weeks on some major feminist websites), you can talk about gender issues again. Maybe.