Letter to Melissa Harris-Perry

[Note: This post started as an open letter to Melissa Harris-Perry, one of my favorite public commentators and host of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show. Realizing, of course, that Melissa Harris-Perry is highly unlikely to read this letter (since she has other shit to do), and that people on my blog ARE likely to read the letter, the letter evolved into a more general analysis of how we can discuss mental illness in mainstream spaces in a constructive and not-disablist way. My solutions don't go far beyond the glaringly obvious, but sadly, the current state of discourse is such that even the glaringly obvious would be a victory.] 

[Not that I would complain if Melissa Harris-Perry DID read the letter, but I just wanted to cover all my bases] 

Content note for disablism, mental illness, violence.

****

Dear Melissa,

Hi! My name is CD.

Okay, actually, I’m writing to you from my pseudonymous blog, so my pseudonym is CD. My name is something completely different.

Now that we have that out of the way -

So, first of all: I’m a big fan of the Melissa Harris-Perry show. As a progressive, watching the mainstream news usually makes my head explode. If it’s not the all-white, all-male panelists discussing reproductive rights, it’s the casual sexism, or racism, or transphobia, or classism, or – there’s a whole list.

Watching your show, on the other hand, is… what’s the opposite of “head exploding from rage?”
Whatever that emotion is, that’s how I feel when I watch the show.
The Melissa Harris-Perry show examine issues that no one else is talking about – solitary confinement, the war on drugs, transphobia, poverty (to name just a few). And your panels are meaningfully diverse – I think you’re the only current affairs show I’ve ever seen where white men are consistently in the minority of your panelists.

There is, however, a more… pointed reason for my letter than fangirling over the wonderfulness, head-exploding-with-confetti-ness of the show.

I wanted to talk to you about the way your show has addressed mental illness.

In the wake of the Sandy Hooks massacre, many of your episodes have included segments on gun violence and gun control. For the most part, I’ve thought those panels were fantastic. You and your guests have a knack for refusing to allow unexamined assumptions to remain… well, unexamined.

Mental illness, however, is one assumption that I think has remained unexamined on your show (at least, so far).

It hasn’t been a big thing on the show, let me be clear. Neither your nor the panelists have talked at length about mental illness and its relationship to gun violence. But like clockwork, every time the issue of gun violence comes up, someone will say “Noun, verb, we need to talk about mental illness.”

And then the moment passes.
Unexamined.

Let me give you some examples. On the December 15th show, a guest said we should not stigmatize socially awkward kids (this was in the wake of Adam Lanza being described as “socially awkward”) but we should make sure that their social awkwardness was not the result of a “personality disorder.”The assumption being, I suppose, that social awkwardness is not dangerous, but a personality disorder might be.

[That particular guest might be shocked to learn that 9% of Americans ages 18 and above have a personality disorder] 

On the January 13th show, you said Americans are afraid “a madman” will enter a school and start shooting. Another guest explained that Americans support background checks to keep guns out of the hands of “criminals, convicted fellons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill.”

Again, it’s just a moment. A passing mention.
But those passing mentions contain a giant truckload of assumptions about what mental illness is, who mentally ill people are, and how mental illness is connected to gun violence.

Here’s a final example. On January 12th, a guest said: “A lot of Americans don’t think [gun violence] is about gun control. They think this is about crazy people. So that’s why you see the President talking about mental health.”

That would be the moment I started arguing with my computer screen [I watch the show online].

Because I am a crazy person.

No, I don’t mean that hyperbolically. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I don’t mean that I’m eccentric or silly or ridiculous or bizarre.

I mean that, assuming your guest thinks “crazy people” are people with mental health issues, I am a crazy person.

Yes, I am a person with mental health issues. I have a mental illness. In fact, I have two! (Sadly, you don’t win any prizes for having more than one – I’ve checked)

So every time someone on a news show casually mentions that mentally ill people are dangerous, or every time an unnamed Governor (*cough* Andrew Cuomo *cough*) passes a law that limits access to guns by the mentally ill, because “People who have mental health issues should not have guns. They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people”  -

Every time, they are talking about me.

And I don’t like being talked about. I prefer to be involved in any discussion that concerns me. Hence my desire to talk back. To create a dialogue, if you will.

***

On the January 26th segment about Obama’s war and drone strikes, Melissa, you talked about how you think “drones” have become a progressive meme. As you explained, progressive don’t really know why they oppose drones, or what they actually think the problem is – but they will consistently say things like “I support Obama, except for his drone policy.”

I submit to you that mental health has become a similar meme. No one knows exactly why mental health is linked to gun violence, or even whether or not gun violence has anything to do with mental illness.  No one’s seen the research, or talked to people with mental illnesses, or even really considered what they mean by “dangerously mentally ill” or “crazy” or “discussion about mental illness.”But everyone feels compelled to mention mentally illness whenever we have a conversation about guns.

So let’s look at the facts.

- First, and crucially: We don’t actually know whether or not Adam Lanza had a mental illness. We’re just assuming he had one, based on the fact that he shot and killed twenty six people.

His brother and some of his neighbors have reported that Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or was on the Autism Spectrum. If this is true (and relying on second-hand information is not exactly great), we need to remember that Aspergers and Autism are not mental illnesses. They are developmental disabilities. 

And it is symptomatic of the state of the discourse about mental illness that very few people have bothered to make the distinction. Indeed, at this point we’re using “mental illness” as a catch-all term for everything from developmental disabilities to mood disorder and personality disorders to people who are neuroatypical. Only some of those things are actual mental illnesses.

- Second: Violence is not linked to mental illness

The reason public commentators – and many of your guests – keep bringing up mental illness, Melissa, is because they assume that mental illness causes violence. Yes, we don’t actually know if Adam Lanza had a mental illness, the thinking goes. But because he shot up a school, he must have one  In other words: to pick up a gun and go shoot a group of strangers, you must be crazy.

(Interestingly, no one ever brings up the mental illness argument after a terrorist attack. Why aren’t we concerned about the mental health of terrorists? We don’t need drones in the middle east – we need more anti-depressants!)

And indeed, the research shows that most Americans believe people with mental illnesses “pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves” (source)

But that is not the reality.

Most of the people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. Repeated for emphasis: most of the people who are responsible for violent crimes – rape, domestic abuse, gun violence, assault, homicide etc. – do not have mental illnesses.

Moreover, the vast majority of  mentally ill people are not violent. Indeed, according to nearly every study on the subject, “The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is very small. . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill (Mulvey, 1994).”

Moreover, it is a provable fact that mentally ill populations – including mentally ill people with illnesses that we most associate with violence (Schizophrenia, for example) – are in fact no more violent than the rest of the population. 

Now, you might ask: “Okay, but Adam Lanza might have had autism. Are autism/aspergers/other developmental disabilities linked with violence?”

And the answer would, again, be “no.”
To quote Dr. Max Wizniter, a neurologist and autism expert, “Aggression and violence in the ASD population is reactive, not preplanned and deliberate” – exactly the opposite of Adam Lanza’s very carefully planned massacre.

These facts directly contradict the popular meme that mass violence is caused by “the mentally ill” and that if we just get more mental health care, or make sure to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness, or create a national database of mentally ill people, gun violence will go down.

It is provably untrue that mental illness causes violence. I will repeat this until I am blue in the face, because people are just not hearing it: it is provably untrue that mental illness causes violence.

When public commentators put mental health care on the list of things we can do to stop gun violence, it makes just about as much sense as saying that more knitting classes will stop violence. Or people eating more tomatoes. Lack of tomatoes is not the problem. Lack of knitting classes is not the problem. And mental illness is not the problem.

This is not, of course, to argue that no mentally ill people are violent. Some mentally ill people are. But  violence cannot be predicted by one’s mental health. Being mentally ill or neuroatypical makes you no more likely to commit acts of atrocity than anyone else.

***

Melissa, I am not just writing this to correct a popular misconception about mental illness. I am also writing because, as you know, discourse has consequences.

Indeed, talking about mental illness as the source of gun violence isn’t just factually incorrect. By talking about “the mentally ill” as though they’re all ticking timb-bombs, ready to explode into violence and aggression, we are further stigmatizing people with mental illness.

When Andrew Cuomo tells the world “People who have mental health issues should not have guns. They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people,” he is furthering the stereotype that people with mental health issues have no self-control, that they are incapable of making good decisions and society needs to “take care of them.”

When one of your guests says: “A lot of Americans don’t think [gun violence] is about gun control. They think this is about crazy people. So that’s why you see the President talking about mental health” he is furthering the stereotype that “crazy people” are inherently violent.

And when Wayne LaPierre – I hate to bring him up, but he occupies a prominent role in the discourse – says that there are “genuine monsters” in American society, and then, in the same breath, tells us we should create a national registry of the mentally ill…

I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain that one, do I?

People with mental illness are not the hidden monsters of American society. They are not incompetent crazies who are incapable of making decisions for themselves. And they are not ticking-time-bombs of potential violence.

But that is what the discourse is making us out to be.

And discourse has consequences. 

Hypothetically, do you think that knowing society thinks people with mental illness are violent and dangerous makes someone more or less likely to seek mental health care?

Do you think knowing your mental health professional might have to register you in a National Database makes you more or less likely to seek mental health care?

Do you think believing that mentally ill people are incompetent and incapable of good-decision making makes you more or less likely to seek mental health care?

Speaking about autism, Sara Reed, director of advocacy and family services for an autism resource center in Connecticut said: “We’re very concerned about families feeling stigmatized and being afraid to seek services for fear that their child will be seen as a possible monster.”

Stigma makes people less likely to seek help, not more.

***
I know this letter is getting a bit long (the bad news is that I write best at length. My professors love grading me), but trust me, this is where we get to the good part.

Initially, Melissa, I just planned to write a letter to you explaining why our current discourse around mental illness is harmful. But I’ve already talked about that in other contexts: specifically in a blog post I wrote right after Newtown.

So, I thought: is this just going to be another rant about disablism (social prejudice against people with disabilities)? Because rants are good! Rants are useful! But maybe – you could stretch a bit. Stretching is good.

Okay. You’re writing to a public commentator. You’re writing to a public commentator who you admire precisely because she’s so good at creating constructive, nuanced, non-oppressive dialogue on TV – a space where constructive dialogue is… very hard to find.

Why don’t you take a page from her book and try to address how we could have constructive, non-oppressive dialogue about mental illness in mainstream spaces?

You want better dialogue, CD? Explain what that looks like.

Since my brain tends to order me around, that’s what I’m doing here, in the second part of the letter.

I’m not saying this dialogue has to happen on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, by the way! Presumably, you have lots and lots and lots of other things to do. Like being a professor WHILE ALSO RUNNING A TV SHOW (how are you so awesome? Can you teach me your ways?)

Instead, I’m taking inspiration from the show and trying to imagine what we would need to have a constructive, non-oppressive dialogue about mental health. In mainstream spaces.

[The most obvious thing we need, of course, is to stop linking mental illness to gun violence, but I think I've addressed that issue pretty thoroughly above, and people are probably already getting bored.]

1. Inclusion of People with Mental Illnesses

The first, and most important thing that we can do to create constructive dialogue about mental illness is to include and prioritize the voices of people with mental illnesses. 

The Melissa Harris-Perry Show is, I think, probably the best show I’ve seen for this: when you talk about an oppression, most of your guests are members of that oppressed group. When you talked about trans* issues and cissexism, most of your panelists were trans*. When you talk about race, most of your panelists are people of color. When you discuss women, most of your panelists are women.

And that’s something I don’t think I’ve seen any show, any newspaper or any magazine in the mainstream do with regards to mental illness.

Can you imagine having a conversation about women’s reproductive rights without any female speakers?

… wait, this is the United States. Of course you can! In fact, it’s happened before. But when it happens, we are (rightfully) outraged. Yet the very same people who are horrified when conservatives discuss reproductive rights without including women have no problem with a conversation on mental health that does not include anyone with a mental illness.

[It is, I must say, quite frustrating to turn on the TV and hear people talking about me as if I were completely incapable of speaking for myself]

The mentally ill are people we talk about, not people we talk to. We aren’t interested in having a conversation with them, despite the fact that they’re the ones most affected by the issue. They’re some kind of nebulous other, voiceless and faceless.

But we are not a nebulous other. If you know more than four people, you probably know someone with a mental disorder. If you know more than twenty, you probably know someone with a major mental illness.

Approximately one fourth of all Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. 6% of people suffer from a serious mental illness like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the US and Canada.

Personality disorders? Nine percent of Americans.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Three percent of Americans.
Schizophrenia? One percent of Americans.
Bipolar Disorder? Between two and three percent of Americans.
Mood disorders? Nine percent of Americans.

And when we talk about developmental disorders (when we can be bothered not to lump them in with mental illnesses), we should prioritize the voices of people who actually have developmental disorders. Which, incidentally, means I’m a total hypocrite, because I… have no developmental disorder.

Estimating the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders is difficult given the differences in the ways that cases are identified and defined (and the continually changing diagnostic criteria), but a recent CDC study estimated that the prevalence is around 1 in 110.

(all statistics from: National Institute of Mental Health)

My point, it is this: there are a whole lot of people with mental illnesses, neuroatypical people and people with developmental disabilities. If you know more than four people, you probably know someone with a mental disorder. If you know more than twenty, you probably know someone with a major mental illness.

If you want to talk to us, you can find us. 

So, Step one to constructive dialogue: include and prioritize the opinions/voices of people with mental illness.

MOREOVER, to take a page from the Melissa Harris-Perry Show (again), we should make sure that the conversation is meaningfully intersectional. For example, when the Melissa Harris-Perry show has panels on reproductive rights, the guests aren’t all white, straight women. There are women of color, queer women etc. Similarly, conversations about mental illness should not be dominated by white, middle class, cisgendered, straight people with mental illness.

(Oh, hi, hypocrite award #2! I’m white, middle class and cisgendered)

Which leads to point #2 on creating constructive dialogue about mental illness

2. Talking about issues that actually affect people with mental illnesses in an intersectional manner. 

Which, again, does not include talking about gun violence (except insofar as gun violence affects people with mental illness because, hey, we can get shot too! Also, many people who survive gun violence develop mental health issues)

So what are some of the issues that affect people with mental illnesses?

… whoa. That’s a, er, VERY BIG question.

When I think about the array of issues surrounding mental health and neurodiversity that we, as a society, need to tackle, I feel daunted. We need to work on accessibility. We need to work on accommodations in the workplace, in schools, and in society as a whole. We need to promote a wider understanding of what mental illnesses are (and are not). We need to realize that everyone has mental health needs, not just the people with diagnosed mental illnesses.

And we can’t do any of these things without first destigmatizing mental illnesses. It doesn’t matter if we have the best access and accomodations in the world, if people are too ashamed or scared of being considered “weak” and “crazy” and “dangerous” to use them. So we need to talk about destigmatization, and what that would look like, and how we get there.

Moreover, since mental illness is not a monolith, there will be no single solution, no one-size fits all. It’s possible to destigmatize depression without destigmatizing schizophrenia, for example. People with bipolar disorder, people with depression, people with schizophrenia, people with PTSD – all of them need very different things. When we consider that most people lump developmental disabilities or variances under “mental illness” (even though they expressedly are not) this becomes even more complicated – a policy to help people with autism probably won’t help people with depression.

Not to mention the fact that every individual person experiences illness in different ways.

All of these conversations, moreover, need to take place with a broad understanding of intersectionality. The issues that face a mentally ill person like me – white, middle class, cis, bisexual and female – will be vastly different from the experiences of a person of color, or a trans* person, or a poor person with mental illnesses. And a society that already believes people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses are violent is even less tolerant towards those bodies that are constantly coded as violent: for example, most of the the violence directed at people with mental illnesses is directed towards black men (girl janitor).

There are really important, HIGHLY under-discussed ways that disablism intersects with race, class, gender identity (and expression) and sexual orientation.

We want to have a conversation about mental health issues?

These are good places to start.

***

In my perfect fantasy world, of course, this conversation would actually happen on your show, Melissa. But you, I think, have a lot of other things on your plate. So instead, I hope (ambitiously, for a small blog) that this letter/blog post can serve as a starting point for people who want to have good-faith conversations about mental illness.

Thank you for showing that constructive conversations can happen on TV, Melissa. And keep being awesome.

Sincerely,

CD

p.s: if I could ask one favor, though, Melissa, I would really, really appreciate it if you steered your guests away from saying problematic things about mental illness. It… gets wearying.

p.p.s: For everyone who is interested, here are further resources about mental illness. They are also some of the the resources I used to write this post (so everyone can verify my research! Hey, I’m writing an open letter to a Professor. My research better be solid)

Stop Linking Autism to Violence 

The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America

In Pursuit of Doing Something Meaningful 

An Observation About Mental Illness (on how trauma, like that suffered by the students at Newtown, often causes mental health issues)

On Sitting With Fear (Analysis of why all the mass shooters have been white men)

Girl Janitor: Race and Mental Illness (if you are a white person with mental illnesses and you cite statistics on mentally ill people being shot by the police (Hi, I was one of you, once!) , YOU NEED TO READ THIS)

Dispelling the Myth of Violence and Mental Illness 

On Not Being Adam Lanza (shameless self-promotion)

Feel free to add onto this in the comments.


An Open Letter to Roger Ebert, Or: Women are Not Better than Men

[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.

Seriously.

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.”

Really?

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?

Yeah no.

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?

YES!

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…

Yeah.

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?

No?

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.”

Yeah, no.

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.

Sincerely,

Culturally Disoriented

Related Posts:

France and the USA do something right in the same week

To My Future Russian Bride

Why Women Don’t Win American Idol (Hint: it’s not because of teen girls)

April Reads are trapped in the hermeneutic circle


To My Future Russian Bride

[content note for a particularly heavy dose of sarcasm]

Dear Future Russian Bride,

I have been compelled to climb out of my cave of ugly-feminist-man-hating-anger ( decorated with the blood of the patriarchs) to write you this letter of love. Yea, for I have discovered that you shall soon come into my life (for the small small fee of $19.99 a month), and that has filled me with true happiness.

Let me begin at the beginning.

For years, I would go to dubiously-legal websites to watch TV shows and movies. Those were the dark years – the college years – when I was lonely and sad, and you (my future bride) were not yet in my life.

Yes, I saw the sidebars of those webpages, with those scantily-clad young ladies peering at me, but never once did I suspect that you – oh, glorious you (my future bride) – were hidden among them. I thought all these (beautiful) scantily-clad young ladies were a dream – a myth – for yea, I did grow up in a land full of super-feminist (and therefore ugly) women.” And these super-feminists and ugly women brainwashed me so that I thought all ladies looked like ugly toads rather than beautiful, scantily-clad angels.

Toads and Feminists

All Feminists Look EXACTLY like this. Except uglier.*

Adrianna Lima

I imagine that you, my future bride, look much like this woman (who is clearly NOT a feminist. Note the un-toadlike features).

But then, one day, a friend of mine was surfing on one of these dubiously-legal websites, and she had the courage to click on the picture of one of these scantily-clad angels (oh, how many thanks I must give to this brave, brave friend).

And that’s when I discovered the great truth. That’s when I learned that there were hundreds – nay, thousands – of scantily-clad, loyal, and never-aging Eastern European women who desperately wished to become my bride! And you were among them, my future wife!

I shall now reprint the advertisement that alerted me to your existence:

“If you are tired of pursuing the typical MTV educated, super feminist and ugly women you see every day, we might have the solution for you if you dare to read on…
Did you know Eastern European women were raised to aggressively pursue Western Men? Also, did you know Eastern European women look like they never age? Thanks to their partially asian genes, a girl will look like she’s in her 20s for a long time to come. In addition to being beautiful and loving to please their men, they also are incredibly loyal. A Russian woman will never leave you and make sure there’s always food on the table. It’s because they grew up to do the cooking, cleaning, and simply take care of their man. As long as you treat them with respect, they will stick with you through thick and thin. Sign up for FREE (limited time only) and meet tons of hot and loyal russian women”**

What joy there is here! What truth! Oh, brave truth, that is hidden in these poorly written and appallingly-grammared sentences. How perfectly the advertisement captures the reality of all thee women in the west, who, thanks to their MTV education, have become “super-feminists” (I assume that by MTV they mean “Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth and Vixens and Virgins for Feminism***” TV, correct?)

Can’t we get the channels that teach women to aggressively pursue men and to then attach to them? Where is the wonderful eastern programming that makes women grow and blossom into a wonderfully loyal super-cook? Why are mothers and fathers not teaching young girls to grab their men and never, ever, ever let them go (much in the manner of a giant octopus)?

Kraken and feminist

Do you resemble this beautifully loyal creature, oh future Russian bride?

And thank the gods above that Easterners have discovered the magic power of the “Asian” gene. Yes, now I realize why Russian women look so hot. They have just enough Asian DNA to never, ever become old – because, as we all know, all Asians are secretly robots which explains why they never age – but they don’t have enough Asian DNA to actually look Asian. They’re still white enough to look, you know, attractive. After all, I wouldn’t want our future neighbors to think I have an Asian fetish, oh future bride. But a little bit of exotic seasoning (and oriental submission) is just the thing to spice up our relationship!

I cannot tell you, oh future bride, how happy I am to have found this beautiful advertisement. My future, which once seemed so bleak, is now so bright. I no longer need to fear that I shall have to settle for a western-style, ugly-feminist for my bride. Instead, I see myself coming home to you, my gorgeous partially-Asian (but not too-much) wife. I see the wonderful food you have prepared for me, thanks to your years of Eastern training. I see you aggressively pursuing me (to feed me with these glorious foodstuffs). I see the way you wrap yourself around me loyally.**** And I see -

But wait! What is this I see?

“Eastern women were raised to aggressively pursue Western MEN

Oh God! Oh Horror! Oh Infamy! Oh Hellfire of Toads! Oh the Great Black Darkness that Has Settled Over My Heart!

My future bride! Can this be true? Because I do not possess a Y chromosome, you do not love me? Because I do not possess a Y chromosome, you shall not gift me with your loyalty and your wonderful cooking? Have you not heard that Our Great American President has decreed that men may marry men and women (like me) may marry other women (like you, oh my future bride)?

Michelle Obama Dance

Speaking of Marriage Equality, my future bride: HURRAH! Let the dancing commence!

But yea, I know what you will say to me. Even if we may marry, you were raised to attach to a western MAN. And I am no man.*****
Well, I suppose that’s fair, oh future bride. And though I am greatly disappointment, I am sure there are other options for me. After all, the internet is the great equalizer, is it not? What is available to western men shall therefore be available to me (albeit somewhere else)? I will simply go to other dubiously-legal websites, where I am certain I will find advertisements for scantily-clad women (and men) who were raised to attach themselves to ugly western feminist women like me. After all, they must exist, correct? I will go find those advertisements immediately!

… Oh future bride! My horror increases! The darkness of my heart is unparalleled! For after surfing hundreds upon hundreds of dubiously legal TV-watching websites I have discovered… there are NO advertisements that are aimed towards me. Where are the advertisements for never-aging, hot Russian men who will do my cooking and cleaning? Or the hot Russian women who reserves all their deep loyalty for ugly western feminists?

I must tell you, my future bride, my disappointment cannot be calculated at this moment. When I was young, I was told: the internet is the great equalizer. It shall level all differences between peoples. But here I see the truth. These advertisements, which promise hot people, are not aimed equally. They are only for (straight) western men. Where are those advertisements for gay western men? Or lesbian western women? Or straight western women? Or people of non-western origin? And now that I think of it… Who are (straight) Russian Men going to marry? And who will male Pandas have sex with?

All my life, I have been told that I, a woman, am in every way equal to a man. But this is a lie! A lie! Or else the internet would bend over to deliver hotness to me, just as it bends over to deliver hotness to my fellow man. Where is my hotness? Where are the dubiously-legal advertisements to satisfy me?

I have been completely disillusioned, oh my (no longer future) bride. I have realized that, far from being “the great equalizer,” the internet is just as riddled with misogyny and racism and heterosexism and western-obsession as the rest of the world. I, who was so joyful that my existence as an ugly western feminist might be lightened by your presence, am plunged into an even greater misery than before.

In the wake of this horrifying discovery, there is only one thing that can relieve my suffering…Oh, my no longer future bride! Will you not marry me anyways? We can run away to Canada! We can run away to France! I will pay the low, low fee of $19.99 a month in order to speak to you through the internet! I am willing to overlook my straightness if you will overlook my two X chromosomes! Will you not take my torment away and make me the happiest ugly-MTV-educated-western-super-feminist on earth?******

Love (love forever),

Your Future Wife (I live in hope)

[All credit for this post must go to my dear friends J. and A. (I need to start giving my friends better pseudonyms, or I'll run out of letters...) Unlike me, J. actually had the guts (and the curiosity) to click through one of those obnoxious "Russian Women Very Attracted To Western Guys" type advertisements you find on questionable websites (yes, in fact, the block quote at the top is a direct quote. I am not making it up). J. then reported back to me and A. Hilarity ensued. Sadly this post is nowhere nears as funny and witty as they are, but I am but one (unmarried) woman, and my wits are sorely lacking]

* No offense to the toad. She/He/Zie is quite lovely.

**Yes, this is a direct quote. I did not make it up.

***Hey, coming up with a “V’ was really hard, okay? I looked through my “famous feminists” dictionary TWICE and then resorted to wikipedia before I gave up. Vixens and Virgins was the best I could come up with. Any other suggestions?

**** Seriously, this entire advertisement could be read as the premise of a horror movie. Young man brings home eastern bride who turns out to be an undying monster. She never ages, NEVER EVER LEAVES HIM (picture the woman’s teeth planted in the guy’s leg) and aggressively pursues him (with claws) when he tries to run away.

*****As the great Eowyn once said…

Eowyn Witch King I am no Man Lord of the Rings

“I am no man”

****** Funnily enough, my parents didn’t owned cable (and I don’t either), so I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen MTV.

Related Posts:

April Reads are Trapped in the Hermeneutic Circle

Trayvon Martin, the Hunger Games and Me

Why Can’t Women Win American Idol?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,085 other followers