I Never Wanted to be a Boy (A Tribute to Authors)

[This post is a companion piece of sorts to my “How Power Rangers Made Me a Feminist” post, although you don’t need to have read that post to read this one. In the Power Rangers post, I discussed how sexism in TV shows had a negative effect on me growing up, while in this post, I discuss how the awesome books I read when I was a kid had a good effect on me as I grew up. You see, I don’t hate everything! Just the terrible stuff]

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I never wanted to be a boy.

And it turns out, that’s somewhat of an unusual experience.

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Back during my finals season (*shudder*), a series of interrelated blog posts penned by female speculative fiction authors went up. First it was Stina Leicht. Then Kate Elliot. Then Kirstyn McDermott. and N.K. Jemisin. There are probably more I missed.  I was, of course, dying of finals, so I couldn’t do anything more than gather links. But there was something so powerful, and so disturbing, about these women’s stories, that I kept on going back to them.

Let’s see if you can spot the common thread, shall we?

Stina Leicht: “[Girls] are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female (…) because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females.”

Kirstyn McDermott: “I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl […] I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . .  I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish[…] Because being a girl isn’t safe.”

Kate Elliot (guest-posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys. When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old,  my Language Arts teacher […]  gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives […] The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.”

N.K. Jemisin (guest posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly […] Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things […] Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.”

Did you spot it?

It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll paraphrase it for practicality’s sake. When they were young, these women all went through a period where they wanted to be a boy and/or they hated being a girl.

[Cue Sigmund Freud jumping out and yelling “PENIS ENVY” at the top of his lungs. Calm down, Freud]

I don’t know about other people, but I find these stories very hard to read. To me, they show how, from a very young age, we teach girls to hate themselves, to think of themselves as second class, as worthless, as unsafe. Even smart, strong, successful women like Kate Elliot, N.K. Jemisin, Stina Leicht and Kirstyn McDermott – women who I might (stupidly) expect to have been unaffected by the negative effects of sexism (again, very stupid assumption) – had to go through a long, sometimes painful, phase where they reconciled themselves to their status as women.

And no one should have to reconcile themselves to their gender.

[Quick side-note: Obviously this particular “I want to be a boy” phenomenon is quite different from transgendered people, whose gender identity does not match their birth sex. But transgendered people shouldn’t have to reconcile themselves to their birth sex either; they should be able to safely live as the gender they identify with.//End side note//]

But this phenomenon is not restricted to the four women listed above. If I take a moment to think about it, I can list at least two or three close female friends who have admitted to going through “boy” phases. I can certainly think of more who have deliberately rejected anything “girly.” And then, when I talked to my mother about these stories, she said she’d felt exactly the same way when she was a kid. She’d gone through a phase where she decided she didn’t like being a girl, so she dressed like a boy, talked like a boy and adopted “boy” mannerisms [I saw the pictures. There is proof]. Which shocked the hell out of me, because I’ve always thought my mother was extraordinarily comfortable in the way she expressed her gender identity.

When I think about it, it’s staggeringly common, this desire to be a boy. And on an intellectual level, I completely understand it. Being a girl in our society means not being safe. Being a girl means being judged according to norms which, for all the changes in the past fifty years, are still very traditional. Being a girl means your body is public property. Being a girl means that your rights are a political ping-pong ball; a”hot-button issue.” Being a girl means people feel free to tell you to shut up, sit down and make them a sandwich.

Wanting to be a boy – or at least, not wanting to be a girl – makes total sense.

So why didn’t I ever want to be one?

Because I never did. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple weeks, and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any period in my life where I wanted to be a boy. I can’t even think of a period when I really rejected “femininity” (whatever that means) [ Sure, I went through a phase where I decapitated my barbie dolls and buried them in the backyard… but I was always a morbid child]. I have a lot of moments where I wish I were as free as a boy, or where I wish I could walk at night and be safe like a boy, or where I wish that women were paid the same amount as men. But I never wanted to be a boy.

Which is strange. When I was a kid, I read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy – traditionally “male” genres. For years, my greatest ambition was to be – I kid you not – a warrior. I spent hours practicing side kicks against an tree in our backyard. I still have a big heavy stick in my room I used to practice “staff fighting.” Somewhere in my house ( I will not reveal where) is a diary where I recorded my “training” sessions (Hey, don’t judge me, okay? At least I wasn’t plotting the nuclear apocalypse). I wasn’t quite a tomboy, but I was pretty close.

So given how much of my identity was “male” oriented, why didn’t I ever want to be a boy?

On some level, I think I knew, even from a young age, that girls could do anything they wanted to, and the problem wasn’t with girls, it was with people and institutions who didn’t get that. So yes, I could read science fiction as a girl, and yes, I could beat a tree to a pulp as a girl, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me.

But I don’t think this belief came because I was smarter or wiser or better educated than girls who did go through a “I want to be a boy” phase.

I think it was because of books.

Kate Elliot: “After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories […] I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.”

Tamora Pierce: “Why do I write so many strong female characters? When I was a kid, 7-8 books out of all books written for kids through teens had boy heroes. Those that had girl heroes showed them at “feminine” pursuits, or if they were a little feisty, a male hero had to bail them out by book’s end (…) When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read: adventure books with girl heroes.”

Kate Elliot and Tamora Pierce didn’t see female characters, so they started writing them. You know who else did that? Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Patricia Wrede, Louise Fitzhugh, N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Farmer – the list goes on. And on. There are droves of female authors who grew up reading books with almost no female protagonists, and who turned around and said: “Screw that. I’m writing about chicks.”

And guess who grew up reading those books?

I did.

I read Tamora Pierce. I read Robin McKinley. I read Madeleine L’Engle. I read Harriet the Spy and Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons. I read The Babysitter’s Club (yes, The Babysitter’s Club, you gotta problem with that?). I read Nancy Farmer. I devoured Sailor Moon and Yoko Tsuno. I read Hope was Here and Born Confused.

In these books girls were the heroes – all kinds of heroes. They were knights and policewomen, spies and politicians, ordinary students and fashion experts, electricians and caterers, waitresses and magic girls, aliens and historians – oh my!

So if I didn’t see my girlhood as limiting me, it was because in the world of my reading, there were no limits to what a girl could be, or to how she could save the day.

You know why I wanted to be a warrior when I was a kid? Because I was reading Tamora Pierce. You know why I didn’t see being a warrior as a “male” pursuit? Because Tamora Pierce’s warriors were female. Even in the Alanna series, when Alanna was the only female knight, there were other women warriors [Thayet and Buri, to name a few]. So when I was pounding that tree into a pulp, I was doing it in the grand tradition of Keladry of Mindelan, Buriram Tourakom, Alanna the Lioness and Daja Kisubo (although I’m sure none of them would be silly enough to practice kicking on a tree).

Eventually, my warrior ways (god, this is embarrassing. I’m so glad this blog is under a pseudonym) – prompted me to take Tae-Kwon-Do lessons. Which was lovely, except for the fact that the instructors would always try to goad male students by saying:

“Are you going to get a girl beat you?”

[Spoiler warning: Yes]

Or: “You hit like a girl!”

[No shit, Sherlock. I am a girl]

But you know what? Even though that bothered the hell out of me (and it went straight into my growing realization that “Wow, people are kind of sexist”) – I knew better. I knew no one could joust like Keladry of Mindelan or swordfight better than Alanna the Lioness. I knew no one was stealthier than Harriet the Spy or braver than Usagi (AKA: Sailor Moon) or more loyal than Dimple Lala. I knew no one was cleverer than Ella and no one was smarter than Yoko Tsuno.

I knew that there was nothing shameful with being “like a girl.”

And someday, everyone else was going to figure it out.

So to all those authors who grew up wishing to be boys. Who grew up knowing that being a girl was unsafe, that being a girl made you “lesser than.” To all of you who then turned around and said: “Screw this, I’m writing about chicks.” Who said “girl can be the heroes.” Who were brave enough, and strong enough, and determined enough, to fight the good fight. Who told the people who thought there was no market for girl heroes “You’re wrong” and who got those books published anyways.

To all those authors, in short, who made it possible for me to have a shelf upon shelf of fantastic books with smart, strong, independent women as heroes.

Thank you.

I have never wanted to be a boy. I have always been happy to be a girl. And it’s because you showed me that being a girl was great.

Thank you.

And to all those people who say “but it’s just a book/a video game/ a comic book. It’s not real. Everyone knows it’s not real. So it doesn’t affect you. Now stop complaining about the lack of female/queer/people of color/ disabled/etc. characters and go make me a sandwich.”

I say: “You’re wrong. And go make yourself that sandwich. Git.”

The End

[Giant disclaimer: the state of fiction is nowhere near equitable enough, either when it comes to female characters, or to other marginalized character s(queer, people of color, trans, disabled etc.). In fact, even though I read a lot of books with female protagonists as a child, I still read more books with male protagonists (and that was with me actively trying to FIND books with female protagonists). We’re not there yet. But the fight is worth it.]

Related Posts:

How Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women (an Alternative List)

WisCon 36 Wrapup: Please Don’t Tame the Shrew

The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal


WisCon 36 Wrapup: Please Don’t Tame the Shrew

This is the fourth and final part of my Epic WisCon recap. But before I get there, I have to announce some bad political news:

Scott Walker won the Wisconsin recall.

I have one reaction to this, and one reaction alone:

Cersei Game of Thrones Wine

That is all.

[Oh wait… I can’t actually drink wine without getting a migraine, so I must find another way to drown my sorrows. Ideas?]

In silver lining news, Democrats retook the Wisconsin senate. And Madison (my hometown) had over 80% turnout. In Dane County (where Madison is located), only 30% of voters chose Walker (I’m sure the percentage is lower in Madison proper).

So at least I’m living with good company.

Madison is a bastion of left wing progressivism (we have actual marxists and socialists here). Since Wisconsin proper (excepting Milwaukee) is not a bastion of left-wing progressivism, the joke/insult about Madison is that it’s “Seventy two square miles surrounded by reality.”

In light of the fact that Walker won 52% of the vote, I vote we change the joke to: Madison is seventy two square miles surrounded by catastrophe.

Because Walker is a reality I refuse to believe in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I need a pick-me-up after contemplating the horrors of modern politics. Hey, look! A fanvid! A fanvid that premiered at WisCon! A fanvid about women in science fiction! IT IS PERFECT!

And it is entitled: Space Girls (my mother told me never to watch Science Fiction but I did)

Okay, now that we’re all feeling better… MOVING ON. For life must continue on, and feminist bloggers gotta blog.

Space Babe Tiptree WisCon

And Space Babe’s gotta fight outdated gender roles in speculative fiction.

This the fourth and final part of my epic attempt to chronicle my experiences at WisCon 36, the feminist Science Fiction convention. Here are the links to parts one, two and three. This section covers Monday at the Convention, and my final thoughts about this year’s WisCon (they are deeply philosophical).

I started off Monday with an 8:30 panel.

I know. I am a madwoman, and I must be stopped.

The Great Divide: Are Women and Men Really Different?

From the panel description: “A number of pop science books have asserted large innate differences between the male and the female brain. A recent book by Columbia Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm, points out the large flaws in the underlying research used by these books. This panel will discuss the science and philosophy behind the difference – or lack of difference – between men and women.”

Again, a subject that is of particular interest of me. One of my pet peeves is non-scientists using science to try to “prove” an innate difference between men and women. Most people who are “interpreting” the scientific data have absolutely no business doing so (and I include myself in this category) because they don’t have the tools to correctly evaluate the validity of research and experiments. I wrote an entire angry rant about this very problem when Roger Ebert decided that the Bestest Idea Ever was to claim that women were better than men (because: science! And evolution!)

But I think it’s fascinating that we as a culture are obsessed with finding scientific “proof” that men and women are fundamentally different. Anytime any kind of scientific study comes out about gender differences, the media jumps on it like my dog jumps on cheese [she loves cheese]. As usual, I’m more interested in the cultural reaction to the science than in the science itself.

What is our obsession with “proving” gender differences? Nancy Jane Moore (who was on the panel) made a great point – “The idea that men and women might not be that different frightens most people.” We – and I include myself in this category – are deeply, fundamentally, and often unconsciously, invested in our current system of gender differences.

Nancy Jane Moore started the panel by saying: “I do have an emotional reaction to the subject…”
Moderator: “Well, you have a female brain.”

Ah, feminist humor. How I love it.

The panelists recapped some of the particularly egregious science used to explain gender differences. As an example, Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist who argues that there is a wide difference between men and women, uses what Janet M. Lafler called “bad graduate student tactics. She cites references that don’t actually support her point, and she also cites herself.

Now, I’m not a scientist, BUT… I’m pretty sure that’s not the way you do science.

There was also an extensive discussion of “Stereotype threat” which is a concept I’d heard of, but never really understood before. And now that I do, I’m obsessed with it.

What is the stereotype threat? Glad you asked:

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. It has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotypes groups. For example, if you remind a woman that she is a woman (a group considered to be “bad at math”) right before she takes a math test, she will do significantly worse than if she is reminded she is a woman after she takes the test.

Yes, in fact, there have been studies that show that if groups are reminded of the stereotypes about their group right before they do a task, they tend to do less well on those tasks. The example above comes from a real study where men and women took a math test and participants were asked to identify themselves by gender either right before or right after the test. Women who were reminded of their gender right before the test began did significantly worse than women who were reminded of their gender after the test was over. There was no noticeable difference in men’s scores either way.

Other examples – and there are hundreds – include the 1990s study where African American and European American students took a test measuring verbal ability. African Americans performed less well. But when the researchers changed the instructions on the test so that participants no longer believed that the test accurately measured intellectual performance, the performance gap reduced drastically. In another experiment, women who took a mathematics exam along with two other women got 70% of the answers right; while those doing the same exam in the presence of two men got an average score of 55%.

In other words: cultural stereotyping affects the way people think about their abilities, and thus the abilities themselves. If you tell a girl that women are bad at math, she is more likely to be bad at math.

David Peterson also cited a really interesting study (I wish I’d taken down the reference) that found that if you introduce games and forms of play (like legos!) that teach spatial skills early enough, there is no noticeable difference between girls and boys’ spatial ability by the time they enter elementary school. [How to solve gender inequality 101]

A great deal of the panel involved book recommendations, or resources for further research, which I really appreciate (being from an academic background). AND, one of the panelists (David Peterson) is a scientist himself, so… these are probably pretty decent [Feel free to skip this part, since it’s just a giant pile of books – but I thought some people would find this interesting]

Nancy Jane Moore’s “Bad Science: The Flawed Research into Gender Differences in the Brain” is a really good starting point (since it recaps a lot of the good (and bad) books about gender science). You download it here.

All the panelists recommended Rebecca Jordan Young’s book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, which is a very dense, highly academic text that systematically dismantles most of the recent pop-science “proof” of gender differences.

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It was another panel favorite. According to Peterson, Eliot( a professor of neuroscience) argues that there is little physical difference in the brains of boys and girls, and the differences that arise in time (for example, in math performances) are mostly the restu lfo a matrix of environmental and cultural effects.

Nancy Jane Moore called Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender – How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference the book to “give all your feminist friends.” It’s quite short, and clever, witty and filled with solid science. And I love the title.

David Peterson highly recommended Vivienne Parry’s The Truth About Hormones: What’s Going on when we’re Tetchy, Spotty, Fearful, Tearful or Just Plain Awful?  – but only if you can get your hands on it. There are very few copies in the USA. I’m determined to find this book based on the following excerpt alone:

“Some 70% of mothers will experience the blues during the first ten days after delivery (…) it has been suggested that this is all about hormones, particularly the catastrophic drop in progesterone. While it is true that those most likely to be severely affected will have suffered the steepest drop in progesterone (…) I remain to be convinced that the baby blues is simply about hormones. Try keeping a man awake for twenty-four hours while subjecting him to intense pain from a life-changing event. Then see what his mood is like when he is deprived of sleep, made to leak from every orfice, while imposing on him all the relatives you’ve ever known who arrive at your home expecting you to be nice to them.” (PREACH!)

Finally, David Peterson recommended a plethora of books that deal with gender equity issues, particularly in technology and science:

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (“Highly Recommended. Everyone Should read this book”)

Ask for it: How Women Can use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (“Once Again, everyone should read this”)

Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Pamela Stone. The boiled down message is (not surprisingly) that more women would stay in their jobs if they could get accommodation for the family demands that are a part of their lives AND if they were not marginalized in their jobs as a result of this acommodation.

The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. Apparently the best book on the subject David Peterson has read since the classic Gender Differences in Mathematics.

Oh, and now I know what the Morris Water Maze is. What is a Morris Water Maze? Ask me at the next Feminist Party!

Degaying and Whitewashing: What Publishing Trends Mean for Writers

I full meant to go to the “Feminism, SF and Fandom in the Academy: An Open Mentoring Session”… but I was too scared. Because actually talking to people scares me. Which is a problem since I am planning to go into graduate school for science fiction, and meeting academics with similar interests would be very helpful.

Anyways. We shall save my problems with social anxiety for another day, shan’t we?

[Actually, there’s a whole discussion of that coming up. So by “another day,” what I really mean is “at the end of the recap”]

Skipping that panel meant I did get to attend the “degaying and whitewashing in YA panel,” which made me infinitely happy, because it was a fantastic panel. From the description: “Can radically feminist and anti-racist works survive the “gatekeeping” process? (…_) Articles about the “degaying” and whitewashing of YA literature have raised people’s ire and ignited a volleying of retorts from writers and reviewers/agents/editors. Let’s talk about some of these perceptions in publishing and what they might mean for writers, particularly those who want to challenge commonly held notions and beliefs.”

This was also my panel to oggle The Famous People ™. The panelists included:

1. Mary Ann Mohanraj, the founder and former editor of Strange Horizons, and the author of Bodies in Motion (which I love, and highly recommend)

2. Andrea Hairston, the WisCon Guest of Honor, Tiptree Award Winner and author of Redwood and Wildfire (I’ve recapped my love of Andrea Hairston in other places, so I won’t do it again. But I will mention that she’s the owner of the most awesome fringe/glitter coat ever)

3. Liz Gorinsky, a Hugo nominated editor at Tor, who has edited Cheri Priest’s Boneshaker, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey and Catherynne Valente’s Deathless (which means I will love her forever).

4. Neesha Meminger, author of Shine Coconut Moon and Jazz in L0ve (both fantastic)

and

5. Malinda Lo, former editor of afterellen.com, and author of the lesbian cinderella story Ash and it’s companion novel, Huntress. My brother is currently writing a book report on Ash, and I so regret not dragging him along to this panel. He loves Malinda Lo (as do I).

ALL the famous people.

And the fact that the panel was made up of authors and editors (and particularly queer authors and authors of color) meant they could speak from personal experience.

Malinda Lo, for example, said she wanted to be on the panel because: “the number one question I get asked is: Did you have trouble getting published because your books are so gay?”

One author described her current struggle to publish a YA fantasy series. The first book has a straight protagonist, the second book, which she has not yet written, has a lesbian protagonist. Her agent has told her that if she proceeds with her plans to have a lesbian protagonist, he will refuse to sell the books, because he thinks there’s no point in even trying.

Interestingly, the agent would have been fine with the book if it had been about the protagonist coming out. Which implies that in publishing, queerness needs to be the problem, or else it has no place in the story.

The panelists brought up a shocking statistic: according to the Children’s Book Council, less than .05% of young adult novels have either an author of color or a protagonist of color. That’s miniscule. It’s also particularly horrifying when you consider that as of this year, there are more people of color born in the US than white people. Are these kids going to grow up with absolutely no characters in books who look like them?

Malinda Lo actually had a very good publishing experience – no one tried to get her to change her lesbian protagonist, and her book has been quite successful. But, as she and other people pointed out, this is less due to luck than to the wealth of people who have worked very hard to change the situation, from small presses to self publishing to reviewers and critics and authors. Andrea Hairston called luck “The serendipity of the universe… after all the hard work. Luck looks really effortless at the moment itself, but all the history of publishing from George Eliot to Aqueduct Press is behind it.”

Malinda Lo also attributed part of her success to the fact that she used to be the editor of afterellen.com – so she knew that there was an audience for fiction with lesbian protagonists.

Lo: “When people say there is no audience, I could say: “no, you are wrong. There is an audience.” So keep at it. Tell them there is an audience.”

Liz Gorinsky talked about selling queer books, and marketing them so they’ll get through the gatekeepers: “I don’t usually go to my eighty year old straight male boss and say “I’m really excited about the gay male romance in this book…” but I can say that to my friends in the WisCon community.”

Mary Ann Mohanraj pointed out that one of the institutional barriers to publishing YA books with gay protagonists is the fact that “there are whole swaths of libraries that won’t buy YA with gay protagonists.”
Which is really obvious when you think about it, but still. Shoot.

The panelists also talked about the difficulties of having this conversation, because people tend to take the subject as an accusation. As Andrea Hairston put it: “It’s not about blame, it’s about having a discussion.”

Or, (Hairston again): “I’m not mad at you…I’m just mad.”

Some of the big strategies recommended were systematic analysis – making sure to keep the subject prominent, doing the statistics, writing criticism etc. – and talking about those books that do exist. Because the enemy of publishing success is obscurity.

Or: “Buy them. Read them. Talk about them.”

And, if you’re my brother, write your book report about them.

Volunteering

After the final panel, Myriad and I went to volunteer at the art show. Of course, we nearly keeled over during the aforementioned art show, because neither of us had eaten correctly (whoops). Cue emergency trip to the ConSuite (bagels and bananas!)

So yes. We may have sold you art. We also let someone steal the stapler (whooooops). And then we helped take down the art show, which was fun (good thing we’d eaten by then).

By the way, if you’re thinking of going to WisCon in future years and you want to volunteer: I highly recommend just showing up. This year, there was a giant board next to the registration desk where volunteering opportunities were recorded. Show up at the location; say you want to help. Works quite well!

Post-Mortem

From the panel description: “Discussion of what worked for WisCon 36, what did not, and how we can make it better next year.”

Now, I have a deep and abiding love for procedural stuff and for knowing all the gritty behind-the-details information, so I love the WisCon postmortem. Knowing about hotel problems, bad conventioneer behavior, past convention gossip etc. is my idea of fun. Other people’s mileage may vary.

I also deeply appreciate the postmortem because it shows how committed WisCon is to improving. I don’t know whether other conventions have postmortems, but WisCon’s is particularly great. The ConCom members are receptive; people willingly discuss issues; there’s a real sense that we’re trying to solve problems rather than place blame. For example, WisCon has safety people (NOT security people), but several people at the postmortem pointed out that we didn’t know who they were or how to find them. At the same time,  other WisCon attendees pointed out that it’s important for safety people to be relatively unobtrusive. By the end of the postmortem, the group decided the best solution might be to put signs explaining the safety team at the registration desk (since everyone walks by it seventy times a day).

Oh, and if you want to rile up a relatively zen group of WisCon-goers, do one of two things:

1. Suggest that the rule against taking photographs is a matter of “preference” rather than “safety” (BAD IDEA)

2. Suggest that WisCon’s Safer Space for People of Color should be used for other things as well (Given the great amount of fighting/arguing it took for the space to exist in the first place… yeah, no. Although for the record, I think the Safer Space should exist as long as POC Con-goers find value in it).

Oh, and the post-mortem included a bundt pan. Which was awesome in and of itself, but which also led to this funny exchange:

A Con-goer mentioned that she’d heard that some people had been rude to the hotel staff. There was a collective gasp of horror, and one of the ConCom members said: “If I start frothing, throw the Bundt pan at my head.”

(Future WisCon attendees. Do not be rude to the Hotel Staff. It will make us sad. It will make us angry. And you don’t want us to be angry. We have bundt pans).

And that is… the end of my recap. *Gasp*

Yes, you can leave now! But if you want to stay… I do have two more things I want to (briefly) mention:

1. Accountability at WisCon

Which fits in nicely after the postmortem, don’t you think?

WisCon is not just any science fiction convention. It’s a feminist science fiction convention. Which means that WisCon isn’t just about appreciating speculative fiction and fandom; it’s also always been about social justice. About making the world a better place. And that’s why I love WisCon, and that’s why I’m planning on returning to it forever and ever and ever (ad infinitum).

My (admittedly limited) experience at WisCon is that the convention and it’s members are deeply committed to enacting social justice not just in theory, but within the Con itself. The Convention works hard to make the convention accessible to people of all ability levels. There’s lots of work being done on accessibility. In the past few years, there’s been a commitment to helping more people of color attend WisCon, with scholarships and work with the Carl Brandon society. After much debate, WisCon also created a Safer Space for People of Color. The Convention tries to make attendance as financially accessible as possible, with low registration rates, scholarships, and the ConSuite. There’s subsidized childcare ($1 a day) so people with children can more easily attend.

WisCon even has a wonderful (and recent) tradition called The WisCon Chronicles. Each year, Aqueduct Press puts out a book filled with essays, recaps, stories etc. from the prior WisCon. Obviously there are a lot of recaps in the Chronicles, but they also contain a great deal of criticism. When things don’t work at WisCon – when panelists say problematic things, when the ConCom makes mistakes, when attendees screw up – the Chronicles talk about them. I see this aspect of the Chronicles as a major part of WisCon’s commitment to accountability and social justice.

This year’s Chronicles (edited by Alexis Lothian, and entitled Futures of Feminism and Fandom) is particularly heavy, because it recaps the Thing-That-Almost-Broke-WisCon: MoonFail.

Last year, the ConCom decided to revoke Elizabeth Moon’s Guest of Honor status due to her comments about immigration and islam. I did not know about this at the time, because I did not even know WisCon existed. Nevertheless, the six weeks between Elizabeth Moon’s now-infamous blog post and the revoking of her GoH status were a hotbed of drama, both on and off the internet. Or, as I like to put it: The Internet EXPLODED.

As per it’s usual.

[If you want to know WHY the Internet exploded, find Elizabeth Moon’s post. It’s not hard. Here, I’ll give you a link: http://e-moon60.livejournal.com/335480.html. Read all of it – the first part is quite boring, but it gets… worse]

The sections within the WisCon Chronicles that deal with Moonfail and its fallout are very hard to read. There are several blog posts from the “heart of the storm” – when all the shit was going down, and they are not easy reading. Because in the heart of the storm, WisCon was screwing up, and screwing up hard, and it was entirely possible that it would…break.

In other conventions, inviting a guest of honor who had said, or done, offensive things would not be as big a deal. Because we don’t expect better from WorldCon, or World Fantasy, or wherever. But we expect better things from WisCon.

Which is why the chronicles are sometimes challenging read. Because I expect better things from WisCon. But at the same time, I recognize that the Chronicles themselves are one of those “better things.” They show a commitment to accountability and to self-policing. They are a recognition that WisCon is always striving, always trying to be better and to grow.

[I am not, by the way, implying that WisCon is perfect in all ways. It still has a lot of growth to do. I fully recognize that there are many areas of improvement]

WisCon is a place of joy, conviviality, excitement and appreciation. It’s a place where we come together to appreciate our fandom and our community. But it can also be a frightening place, because to be a true WisCon attendee – in my opinion -requires a commitment to growth. To paraphrase WisCon ConCom member Victor Raymond, WisCon requires change. It requires always striving for something better. And there’s joy in that too, because it means that WisCon is alive. It’s not a static institution. It grows and changes, and it’s members grow and change.

Moonfail too, caused growth. The resulting convention had a great deal of panels dealing with race and racism, which if nothing else, made an enormous difference to my understanding of, and my personal commitment to, anti-racism. And it led to WisCon creating a statement of principles, which enshrined that WisCon is more than just a place to have fun – it’s a space that is committed to social justice in all of it’s forms.

From the (newly minted) statement of principles:

“WisCon’s focus on science fiction has played an important role in the exploration of feminist futures: futures where people of all colors and backgrounds flourish, where women’s rights and women’s contributions are valued, where gender is not limited to one of two options, where no one is erased out of convenience, hidden discrimination or outright bigotry.”

So yes. A good ending to that particular subplot. The story of WisCon is ongoing; however, and I’m sure Moonfail will rear it’s head again (as all subplots do).

Speaking of Accountability – if I’m going to demand that WisCon attendees commit to growth, I should probably account for myself too!

2. Achievements/Personal Areas of Improvement:

First, I should say that in spite of all the freakouts, I was very, very glad that I presented a paper at WisCon. If you’re going to present a paper anywhere, WisCon is where it’s at. And I got to write about feminist fantasy, which is something I never do in my “Real” Academic life.

Second, I was very glad to have dragged my brother along. He loved it (I knew he was going to, but I had some last minute freakouts). I loved having him there. It was wonderful. I had to drag him away kicking and screaming.

Now, onto the important stuff… Regrets!

Social anxiety! I have it. And most of my regrets are social anxiety related. There are awesome people at WisCon, and I would like to meet more of them. That is basically my regret/goal for next year.

I didn’t go to the Academic Mentoring Session because of social anxiety (and imposter syndrome); I didn’t go to any of the parties because I didn’t know anyone (booo!); I didn’t go to the signout because famous people scare me (in a nice moment of parallelism: last year I jumped into a stairwell rather than meet Catherynne Valente. This year I jumped out of a stairwell rather than meet Mary Anne Mohanraj. Whoops!)

So yes. Goals for next year: Go to the first time dinner again (that’s how I met the most people my first year). Go to the sign-out. Ask the Awesome People to sign your books, even if you’re scared. Go to the parties. It’s, er, good for you.

Oh, and dress up for the Guest of Honor speech, if you possibly can. I have ordered it so, and you must listen to me.

Space Babe Tiptree WisCon

Space Babe has ordered it too!

And this, my friends… marks the end of my epic quest to chronicle EVERYTHING that happened to Me at WisCon 36. I’ve written well over 15,000 words. You’re probably sick of it. I’m probably sick of it. So I’m just going to stop right now while I’m ahead –

Actually, no, because! A FINAL SHOUTOUT to an incredible T-shirt I saw at WisCon. It said: “Please Don’t Tame the Shrew.” I loved it madly (Shakespeare reference and Feminism = Literature student joy), but now I cannot find it anywhere on the interwebs. If anyone knows where to get it, I would be grateful.

[And yes, that is what I am referring to in the title of the post]

So that was WisCon 36. It was awesome. Can’t wait till WisCon 37.

Space Babes out.

[No, really, this time I mean it]

Related Posts:

The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal: Part 3 of WisCon 36

What Happens at WisCon stays at WisCon: Part 2 of WisCon 36

A Disoriented Con Reporter at Large: Part 1 of WisCon 36


How Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist

First things first: I am now on Twitter. Yes, in fact, I do hate myself, why do you ask?
I mostly got twitter because I’m going to WisCon, and tweeting at WisCon is awesome. But I still hate myself.
My twitter handle, for anyone interested, is @CDisoriented. My twitter name is Cultural Disorient. Apparently, I can’t call myself “Culturally Disoriented” on twitter, because that’s too long a name. Ah, technology.

NOW. Let’s move on to better (and more interesting) things: Power Rangers and Feminism

I talk a lot – and blog a lot – about gender issues in culture. I get some flack for this in various quarters. The two big criticism I hear are:

1. Culture doesn’t really matter. Who cares if there aren’t as many girl heroines as boy heroines in movies?** Why aren’t you trying to get more women elected to congress?

[ETA: “boy heroines” is either a typo OR a subtle comment on the gendered nature of nouns. You decide!]

2. Sexism is over! God. Get over it.

[I should add that I get both of these critiques for ALL the social issues I talk about (Racism in Science Fiction? Why aren’t you trying to get more People of Color Elected instead? OR Racism is over! Get over it.) But since gender issues are where my interest in social justice issues began, I’m starting with that]

So I’ve decided to explain myself. Why am I so interested in gender issues? And why am I so interested in gender issues in culture (as opposed to congress)?

[Spoiler Alert: it was Power Rangers. Yep. Power Rangers]

Your honor, I’d like to start at the beginning.

I’ve always considered myself a feminist. I mean “always” as in: I honestly can’t remember when I started. I do recall conversations as a six year old when I said I was a feminist, so… it’s been a while.

Back then it didn’t seem like a radical, or a political, position at all. Of course I was a feminist. Why wouldn’t you be a feminist? I thought boys and girls were equal. Feminism thought boys and girls should be equal. Therefore, I was a feminist. To me it was a decision in the same ranks as not killing kittens or believing slavery was wrong. Of course you didn’t kill kittens. Of course you thought slavery was wrong. Of course boys and girls were equal. Why were we even talking about this? Someone hand me the box of legos;I had a pyramid to build.

But in any case, the whole thing seemed rather irrelevant. Because boys and girls were equal. I mean, they might not be equal in some far-away places – but they were were equal in the United States (and in France). If you had told me, at seven or eight, that the great passion of my later life would be gender equality, I would have laughed at you. Why would it be? Sexism was over.

[Spoiler alert: it wasn’t]

At least, that’s what I thought.

(I also thought racism was over, so I was pretty innocent. I was, however, aware that homophobia was an issue. I hadn’t, at the time, even considered issues like transphobia, ableism etc.)

Power Rangers changed all that.

Power Rangers and Feminism

Now, what are the Power Rangers? First, if you’re asking this question, you probably don’t have the stain of 90’s cartoons on your soul. The Power Rangers is a ridiculously long-running children’s series/franchise.Five (or six) young people get trained to take down bad guys; they can morph into “power rangers” and pilot giant machines (called Zords) and fight bad guys. There are at least eleventy-billion incarnations of the power rangers (because every three years or so the creators get bored and start over with a new team)*, but it stays remarkably similar across all the series (at least in my memory). There spandex costumes, the terrible fighting and the very weird production values and the general AWESOMENESS.

[Apparently the actual reason they switched the teams up every three years was because that’s how in worked in the Sentai series Power Rangers is based on. Ahem. This is what happens when you don’t do research before writing your blog]

Because Power Rangers was awesome, let’s be clear. When I was young – which, for the purposes of this post, means when I was under the age of ten – I was obsessed. Obsessed. In a slightly unhealthy way.

I mostly blame this on the explosions. There were GREAT explosions. BOOM! SPLAT!

Awesome.

Also, fighting. There was great fighting. I mean, looking at the fighting in retrospect, it was pretty terrible. But for an eight year old? AWESOME.

Here’s a vid, by the way:

BOOM! SPLAT! AWESOME!

Exactly.

But since Power Rangers had, like, ninety bajillion different teams, after a while, I started to notice a trend.
All the Red Rangers were men.

And since the Red Rangers are always
a) the team leaders
b) the main characters

Well, it seemed a little unfair to me. Why were all the team leaders boys? Weren’t girls equal? And while we were at it, why were the pink rangers always girls? Why were there no pink rangers who were boys? Why were there no girls who were green rangers or black rangers?  And why were there always fewer girls than boys in the team?

This, of course, particularly bothered me because I wanted to be the red ranger. Clearly. I wanted to be the leader [I was super-bossy when I was a kid]. But no one like me – no girls – were red rangers.

[note: I can only speak to the seasons I have seen. I stopped watching in 2002, and I certainly hadn’t seen all the seasons/series before then. I know there’s been at least ONE female red ranger since then (out of, like, twenty guys)]

It was almost like girls and boys weren’t actually equal – at least not in the Power Rangers.

Now, I was never one to jump to conclusions. Sure, the last eleventy billion teams had all had this weird gender thing. But maybe – maybe – in the next team, they would change things. I was pretty confident about this.

And that’s when Power Rangers: Time Force started.

The second I saw the promos, I got super excited: it looked like the Power Rangers would have a girl leader for the first time. The story seemed to be that the guy leader had died, and so the girl (Jen) had to take over. Which was great. I was all for it!

I was convinced that this would be a true gender switch. That Jen would be red ranger, and that a boy would be the pink ranger. I remember an enthusiastic schoolyard conversation where I talked about how amazing it was that there would be a boy pink ranger.

See? I thought. Girls and boys really are equal! Even in Power Rangers.

[Spoiler Alert: I was wrong]

Jen Pink Ranger Erin Cahill Time Force

Jen: the new Red Ranger. Clearly.

The day I sat down to watch the show for the first time, I was SUPER EXCITED. Can’t even tell you.

Sadly, the plot I’d gleaned from the promos, was not the actual plot.

Here was the real plot:

In the future, Alex the Red Rangers dies (so far so good). So Jen, his girlfriend, takes over. Except that in order for the Power Rangers to actually be a team, they need a Red Ranger (which is Jen, right? The new red ranger is Jen?). So they go back in time to find Alex’s (male) ancestor, Wesley.

By this point, I was like: ARE YOU KIDDING ME? You have a perfectly competent leader. She is awesome. She can kick ass. WHY ARE YOU GOING BACK IN TIME TO FIND SOMEONE ELSE?

[the answer was something along the lines of “blah blah has to have the same DNA blah blah”]

Okay. So they find Wesley. And he’s the new Red Ranger. And of course, Jen is the pink ranger. BUT. It can still be okay, right? Because Jen’s still the leader, right? Because Wesley has no idea what he’s doing, and he has no training, and he’s a total jerk who thinks he’s better than everyone else, whereas Jen does know what she’s doing, and she does have training, and she’s smart and capable. So she’s the leader. Right?

Wrong.

Despite the fact that Jen was “technically” the leader, Wesley was the leader in the only place it really mattered: in battle. He was the field leader. He was the one whose decisions really mattered. Jen was almost always wrong. Wesley was almost always right.

I was excited about this show because I thought Jen, a girl, would be the protagonist and the team leader. But as it turns out, it was all a massive fake-out. Wesley, the boy, was the protagonist and the team leader.

And that’s when my head exploded, your honor.

I realized that, in the world of the Power Rangers, boys and girls were not equal. I mean, even when a girl was more competent, more knowledgeable, more likeable, more qualified and better trained, the boy was still the boss.

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?

It wasn’t just an issue of fairness to me. It was personal. It meant that if I ever became a Power Ranger (hey, I was young, okay? It’s good to have lofty goals when you’re young), no matter how hard I worked and how good I was, I would never, ever, ever get to be the team leader.

I was so angry that I never watched another episode.

[As it turned out, I’d made the right decision, since they did exactly the same thing in the next series. The yellow (girl) ranger, was the interim leader, and then when the red (boy) ranger walks out of the jungle, despite the fact that he’s a total rookie, he’s immediately chosen as the team leader]

Of course, I didn’t go straight from “girls and boys are equal” to “I am a warrior for gender equality” in three months. It took a while. But Power Rangers had opened the way. I started seeing gender inequality everywhere, from the other kid’s shows I watched, to the books I read, to the politicians in power.

That’s why I always say Power Rangers turned me into an active feminist. And that’s also a big part of the reason why I’m so obsessed with gender issues in culture.

Because it was in a cultural medium – a TV show – that I realized that sexism still existed

And because that cultural medium had such a massively negative effect on me. It was pretty devastating to think that  no matter how smart or good I was, I could never be the leader of a team of superheroes.

So yes. Culture matters. And yes. Sexism still exists.

feminism pop humor so that explains the difference in our salaries

And if you ever wonder why I spend so much time blogging about social issues in pop culture: blame the Power Rangers. It’s all their fault.

But most importantly. I’ll probably never be a Red Ranger. But I do get to be an even better kind of warrior: A warrior for gender equality. And warrior for social justice (BAAAH, that sounds corny. But I can’t help it. I grew up on a steady diet of Sailor Moon, Xena: Warrior Princess, Batman and Power Rangers. I’ve always wanted to be a warrior. Ah, growing up in the 90’s…]

And that’s something I can do without wearing a weird spandex suit.

Red Ranger Power Rangers

Although those outfits are pretty fabulous

One thing I didn’t talk about in this post is the issue of race in Power Rangers. But I really SHOULD mention it. A friend suggested that I look up the uniform colors for the first team of the Power Rangers. I did, and my head nearly exploded.
The black ranger is an African American man, and the yellow ranger is an Asian woman.

Seriously?

I did also notice when I was growing up that all the red Rangers were white men (there have since been non-white red Rangers), and that the pink rangers were almost always white women. I’m sure other people have more insight into this, because the Power Rangers have been going on for so long at this point… but is this still a trend?

[Funny story: The first big thing I did to solve gender inequality was write a letter to 4Kids (the children’s show division of Fox TV) where I explained that Yu-Gi-Oh (the show about the card game) didn’t have any good female characters (because none of the female characters ever won the card games), and giving them a suggestion for a great female character (who could win the card game). Unsurprisingly, they did not take my suggestion to heart]

Related Posts:

WisCon 36 Schedule

And in Breaking News: American Idol is Still Sexist

An Open Letter to Roger Ebert: Women are not Better than Men

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women


And in Breaking News, American Idol is Still Sexist

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Why Can’t Women Win Idol? (Hint: it’s Not Because of Teen Girls).” I argued that the reason female contestants have so much trouble on American Idol is because the show itself gives men an unfair advantaged – not because a bunch of hormonal teenage girls vote for the cute boyzz.

The good news is, we’ve got a woman in the final two: Jessica Sanchez. Yes, the 16 year old who was almost eliminated during top seven week. So maybe – just maybe – a woman might win this season and end the four years of white male domination (I’m still terribly sad for my Idol crush  whoops I mean the incredible talented Joshua Ledet, who I thought should have ended up in the top two with her).

(Hey, I love him ’cause he’s talented, okay?)

Joshua Ledet Jessica Sanchez

My personal top two for the year…

The bad news is that American Idol is desperately trying to check off every.single.box on the American Idol Sexism Bingo Card.  Which: ARGH. I was hoping Idol would burn the damn Sexism card, not play with renewed vigor.

(Dear American Idol: I realize you may not have understood my last post. It was not meant as a challenge. Please stop trying to prove me right and start trying to prove me wrong (by not being sexist). Thank you)

American Idol only has two more show to go. How many more ways can they try to check off the boxes on the  Sexism bingo card?

Before we answer that, let’s look at the many ways they’ve checked those boxes in the past few weeks.

1. Jessica’s Dress-gate

“A subset of this problem is the clothes issue: while I’ve never heard a man criticized for his fashion choices by a judge, many, many female contestants have had their style questioned.” (Culturally Disoriented, Why Don’t Women Win Idol?)

On the Top 5 results show, American Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine gave a critique of each singer’s performances on the prior night. This is what he had to say about Jessica Sanchez’s rendition of “Proud Mary” : “That dress was too mature for her. I believe there were a lot of people at home last night who felt uncomfortable.”

Seriously?

Seriously?

What the hell, Jimmy?

By the way, let’s take a look at this so called “mature” dress.

Jessica Sanchez proud mary white dress

Oh the horror?

Dude, it’s a singing contest. Why are you talking about her clothes? Why aren’t you talking about her singing? Sheesh.

The problem isn’t just that Jessica’s clothes were critiqued. It’s that only women are judged for their styling decisions on American Idol. Male contestants don’t have to worry about it. Female contestants do. If you’re going to comment on Jessica’s style, Jimmy, you have to also comment on Phillip Phillip’s. Or Deandre Brackensick’s. Or Colton Dixon’s.

My favorite American Idol commentator, Michael Slezak, often talks about the women’s fashion choices. But he also talks about the men’s. If he says that Elise had a great dress, he’ll also mention the fact that Colton was wearing a weird blouse. Equality is all I ask for, peoples.

The other problem, of course, is that Jessica’s styling decisions aren’t entirely in her hands: she’s dressed by stylists. And Jimmy even acknowledged that when he said “Stylists, what are you doing? You’re torpedoing this girl.”
So if it’s not something that’s under her control, why are you devoting most of your critique time to it? Why don’t you just go talk to the stylists? You’re the mentor, you can do that.

Or, in other words, why do we seem to think it’s appropriate for a fifty year old man to comment on a sixteen year old girl’s clothing when it’s not under her control and it has nothing to do with her performance? And when he would never say the same thing to a male contestant?

It’s not appropriate. Stop doing it – or else, start doing it to everyone. Thank you.

Ah, the land of American Idol.

BTW: My brother would like American Idol to know that “it’s about the singing, not the clothes.”

2. Men are artists! Women… are not.

“The trouble is, I’ve never heard a judge call a woman an artist. Or give her credit for song rearrangement. I’m sure it’s happened – it’s not like I’ve watched the show for that long. But again, as Michael Slezak said “somehow, it’s always easier for a guy with an acoustic guitar to get credit for song rearrangement than a girl.” Female contestants like Crystal Bowersox, Carly Smithson, Haley Reinhart, Katelyn Epperly, Allison Iraheta and Siobahn Magnus would make radical – and successful – changes to songs, and the judges would never praise them for it (…) While a man can be a great singer and a great artist, a woman on Idol can only be a great singer. It’s another weapon in their arsenal that men have, and women don’t.” (WDWWI?)

I seriously did not think this would be a problem this year, given how creative and artistic the women are.

But alas, I was proven wrong.

On top seven (redux) night, Phillip Phillips rearranged an Usher song (U got it bad). After the performance, Randy Jackson said: “This year, guys, we have a true artist on the stage.”

Now, on the same night, Skylar Laine transformed not one but two songs (“Born this Way” (pop) and “I Heard it through the Grapevine”(motown)) into country tunes. Very nice, Skylar! Surely your daring rearrangements will prompt a judge to comment on how “artistic” and “creative” you are! Particularly since they liked both performances!

[spoiler alert: it didn’t]

Skylar Laine does exactly the same thing as Phillip… but she’s not an artist. Someone explain why to me, so I can understand, because my brain is not computing the data (then again, I am an emotionless female robot. So… it’s no wonder I can’t understand).

Skylar Laine Born This Way

You know what would be really artistic, Skylar? If you did the same song and the same arrangement… but as a man. Now that’s creativity!

And this, my friends, is a trend. Jessica Sanchez turned Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” into a ballad (I cannot get over how gorgeous the studio recording is); Elise Testone rearranged “Bold as Love” (she also transformed a few other songs, but this was her most radical transformation)**, Skylar Laine consistently “countrified” mainstream music, even Hollie Cavanaugh made some interesting changes to “Bleeding Love.” But none of them were called artists. Oh no. There is only one true artist on the Idol stage – Phillip Phillips, the white male contestant.

Seriously, what else would poor Skylar Laine have to do to be called an artist? She plays the guitar, she rearranged songs – Elise played the piano – is there anything these women can do to get the necessary “artist” label?

I’m starting to doubt it.

(other than stealing a “Y” chromosome, of course. Jessica, why don’t you try that for next week, ‘mkay?)

The other infuriating thing is that when “artists” like Phillip Phillips choose obscure songs – specifically, “The Stone” – they are praised for it. Meanwhile, when Elise Testone chooses an obscure song (“Bold as Love”), she’s lambasted for it.

*sigh*

Moving right along…

3. Women are emotionless drones

“And, in a case of hitting someone when they’re down, women tend to get the “cold and emotionless” critique far more than men do.” (WDWWI?)

So, after Elise Testone’s performance of “Let’s Get it On,” JLo critiqued her emotional connection to the song. Then she added in this lovely little line: “they [the audience] want to know that you’re a person. That you feel things.”

OH MY GOD, ELISE IS A CYBORG! *so excited* I’ve always wanted to meet a cyborg -*

Oh, wait, that wasn’t what JLo meant. Hem. Ignore me.

But seriously, people. We all know Elise Testone is a person. Can we please stop using this critique? Because it’s almost exclusively used for women. It’s also almost exclusively used for women in fan forums where, I swear, every single contestant this season from Skylar Laine to Elise Testone to Jessica Sanchez has been criticized for being an emotionless robot.

The fact that this critique was used on Elise Testone – of all contestants – is particularly ridiculous. Elise is the contestant this season who has had the most trouble keeping a poker face and not being overwhelmed by her emotions (something she’s been criticized for quite a bit). She’s also a deeply authentic performer. Just because she’s not crying onstage doesn’t mean she’s not authentic.

Elise Testone Bold as Love

I didn’t know we made robots that looked so lifelike and human…

The judges, I should add, were specifically critiquing Elise for not getting more emotional about her terminally ill dog. Thanks, guys, for giving such a brilliant portrait of what it really means to be “inhuman.”

To me, this constant reminder that women are never “emotional” enough (unless they’re too emotional) is a really disturbing denial of these women’s humanity. In Jessica Sanchez’s case, one of the most common fan critiques is that she’s some kind of super-robot who has been raised from the age of three to be a singer, and thus she can’t possibly have any emotional connection to what she’s singing. Which is ridiculous, and impossible to defend against. I’m sure someone can give a more trenchant critique, but it seems like we automatically assume men are “connecting” and “human” while women have to prove it.

(Hey, I’ve got an idea! Since all the female singers have been criticized for being robotic, maybe they’re all part of an evil robot army whose plan is to take over the world through awesome singing! That would be AMAZING. Someone write the comic!)

Robot army idol singers

Female Idol Singers = Actually A Robot Army. It explains EVERYTHING.

4. Refusing to Critique/Overhyping the Male Contestants

“The Judges recognize male contestants more often. Two weeks ago on Idol, the judges gave an unprecedented FIVE standing ovations in the course of a single show. Every single male performer except one got a standing O, and the one who didn’t was mentioned over and over in the show as having “set the bar.” Only one female performer received a standing ovation, despite the fact that most critics thought performers like Skylar Laine or Jessica Sanchez (neither of whom received a standing ovation) performed better than Deandre Brackensick and Heejun Han (both of whom received one).” (WDWWI?)

I could paraphrase my entire last post in one sentence: Men win on Idol because they are framed as winners by the judges (and the producers).

And it keeps happening.

After Phillip Phillips had a mediocre performance, Jennifer Lopez – who specifically said that she wanted a woman to win this year – told him: ” “I need you to do songs that are going to get you to that last show so you can win.”
She specifically tagged him as a winner even when he had a bad performance. None of the female contestants have gotten this kind of shoutout.

He was also called the only true artist onstage.

Joshua Ledet, meanwhile – who, by the way, I absolutely love – has gotten an unprecedented fifteen standing ovations over the course of the show. Steven Tyler said he was one of the top two contestants to ever appear on the show (in eleven seasons). Jennifer Lopez, meanwhile, told him that he was one of the top two singers in the last fifty years.

Talk about overpraising! Top two singers in the last fifty years? Whitney Huston, James Brown, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson are all joining Aretha Franklin in singing: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”

Then the judges called on Jimmy Iovine to take good care of Joshua Ledet when giving him a record contract. Well, first, they’re assuming Iovine WILL give him a record contract, and second… again, a shout-out that no female contestant has gotten.

They keep framing the men either as the winners or as the best things since human history was invented.

Uh, it’s no wonder men keep winning if they’re judged like this.

Even Jessica Sanchez, who is pretty heavily praised by the judges, gets nowhere near this level of critique. While the judges jump to their feet for Joshua, they will reluctantly give Jessica a standing ovation. At some point, JLo even told Elise Testone that she didn’t want to stand for her, but Elise Testone’s performance persuaded her otherwise. This is something she’s never said to a male contestant. Male contestants get their ovations unreservedly… women get them with caveats.

The other problem with the judge’s critique of the men is that… well, they’re not really critiquing them. Ever. Phillip Phillips and Joshua Ledet haven’t received a constructive critique in I-don’t-know-how-long. Even when Phillip Phillips completely screws up (in ‘Time of the Season” (no, seriously, it’s a bloodbath)) or when Joshua Ledet forgets the words of his song (“I Believe”), they get free passes. The women on idol do not get this kind of free pass: if they were anything less than brilliant in the past few episodes, they were critiqued, and often quite harshly.

And it’s not that I think women shouldn’t be critiqued. It’s just that if you’re going to give men a free pass and tell them they’re “great” when they’re… not, then you have to do the same thing for women.

6. In Conclusion

Yep, American Idol is still sexist. Boo. Boo, I say.

I would really like to hold out hope that there won’t be some kind of bias against Jessica Sanchez in the finale episode – that she and Phillip Phillips will truly be judged as equals. Because that, in the end, is what bothers me so much about the sexism I see on American Idol. If Phillip Phillips wins, I want him to win because of his popularity and his hard work, not because of the show’s unconscious bias towards men. I don’t want to have to keep seeing female contestants get undercut on stage. If the men are truly better – if the men are truly more popular – they will win even without the show’s bias. But right now, the show has a bias, so it’s impossible for me to say that any result is entirely fair.**

I hold out hope that the finale will, in fact, be a showcase of both Jessica and Phillip’s talents, and that both will be praised and criticized in a fair manner. But I’m not holding my breath.

Which is why I tell you, Jessica Sanchez: if you want to be judged equally… maybe consider dressing as a boy for next week? They might call you an artist! After all, only men are artists! And they certainly won’t criticize your clothes…

Jessica Sanchez, Fallin'

By the way, you have awesome personal style. That is all.

(I’m being facetious here; please don’t hurt me).

And finally, before we all leave. Sexism is not confined to American Idol, people! Guess what other show is guilty of some pretty blatant and disgusting misogyny! The Voice! HURRAH!

Yes, on the final performance episode, Christina Aguilera dared point out that the song Tony Lucca chose to sing – Jay Z’s “99 problems” – was “a little derogatory towards women.” She also praised Tony’s voice and said “but all in all it was good fun.”

The lyrics are “”If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you son / I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”

A little derogatory. A little derogatory.

Now, of course, the real problem is that Aguilera was eviscerated for daring to point out the misogyny in the lyrics. She was eviscerated by Adam Levine, Lucca’s mentor, who condescendingly told her that “bitch” didn’t mean “bitch” but “everything bad in life.” (which is still sexist, by the way), and that the word was a “metaphor.” She was eviscerated in the recaps and the fan forums the next day.

I’ll leave most of the coverage here to Shakesville, where BrianWS writes a great takedown of the issue. But here’s my comment. Aguilera has been called a bitch many times in her career. And she was called a “bitch” for daring to point out the misogyny in Tony Lucca’s song.

Were those critics and fans being metaphorical?

What’s the metaphor?

(Hey Christina! What kind of world do we live in?)

* Elise Testone may be the most Science Fictional contestant ever. First, she’s a cyborg. Second, she covered “Bold as Love,” which, as SF fans knows, is the title of Gwyneth Jones’ incredible novel about a dystopian England ruled by rock stars. I love her. Madly.

** when I talk about fair results, I don’t mean that the best singer wins. I just mean that the results are unaffected by issues of the show’s bias, or sexism, racism, homophobia etc.

Related Posts:

Why Can’t Women Win Idol

An Open Letter to Roger Ebert

A Letter to My future Russian Wife


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

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

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Why Can’t Women Win Idol? (Hint: It’s Not because of Teen Girls)

I feel quite guilty about my sporadic posting on the blog. But in my defense, it’s finals season at my University… and I’m not getting a lot of sleep. I might as well admit that until finals are over (April 30th), posting is going to continue to be sporadic. If anyone is following the blog, my apologies – I promise, it will get better after the 30th.
Other signs that its finals season?

  • Yesterday I misspelled the word “misspelling” AND the word “typo”
  • I have over 450 unread emails (by the way, if you’ve sent me an email in the past two weeks, there’s a good chance I haven’t gotten it. Sorry!)
  • After my American Literature final, I ate three bags of carrots in a row. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why.
  • I am slowly regaining feeling in my right hand after the aforementioned American Lit final. My reaction to the numbness is particularly worrying: “well, at least this way my hand won’t hurt during the NEXT final.”
  • I used up an entire pack of pens in less than a week.

Anyways. Back to your regularly (or irregularly) scheduled blog content. Today, I’ve got a rant. Yes, a rant! I don’t think I’ve had a rant on here yet. Oh, sure, I got annoyed at the “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”, and I had some negative comments about the Hugo Shortlist, but a real rant, with bitterness and snark and anger? Haven’t had one yet.
So yay for innovation?

***

[trigger warning for misogynistic language]

Last week Jessica Sanchez was voted out of American Idol. Fortunately, the judges exercised their power of veto and saved her from elimination. But it was the shock boot of the season: Jessica is widely regarded as the best vocalist left on the show, and everyone thought she was a frontrunner. She’s cute, she’s passionate, she sings brilliantly, the judges love her, the critics love her – she’s got it all. In fact, most commentators have seen Jessica as the Great Female Hope: the woman who might finally break the four straight seasons of men winning on idol.

Jessica Sanchez "Love You I Do"

Why, Jessica, WHY?

With her almost-ouster hanging in the air, now seems like a good time to ask this question: What’s up with American Idol and the Ladies, huh?

I mean, seriously.

It’s been FOUR YEARS since a woman won. And last week, Jimmy Iovine, the producer and mentor for the contestants, said on the results show that this season will come down to a contest between Phillip Phillips and Colton Dixon.*** Well, there you go; might as well stop watching and take a nap now – we’ve got the results! Five straight years of men! Hurrah!

We should stop calling it Idol and start calling it “The White Male Idol… and the Supporting Ladies” (I’m not even going to touch on the racial aspect in this post, because that merits a rant of its own).

The woman problem isn’t even confined to the winners. If there were no gender bias on the show, we would expect some years to be dominated by men, some by women, and most to be roughly equal. But in the past five seasons, only two of the top ten singers had a rough gender parity (season seven and season eleven). By contrast, the top ten singers in seasons eight, nine and ten were mainly male – in fact, by the top eight of all three of those seasons, there were only two women left (vs. six men). Which means that for three out of the last five seasons, it was three times easier to get voted into the top eight if you came equipped with a Y chromosome.

And listen, this rant is not about individual voting decisions. If you prefer a male contestant in any given year, I have no problem with you. My feminist fervor does not extend to believing you should always, in all circumstance, support a woman over a man. Gun to head, I probably would have voted for Adam Lambert over Allison Iraheta in season 8. Gun to head, I would have voted for David Cook over Carly Smithson in season 7. If you prefer Colton Dixon to Jessica Sanchez, more power to you. I’m interested in examining the trend as a whole – not in castigating people for their personal contestant preferences. (As the great Haley Reinhart once said “It’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it”)

Nor is this rant about how the streak of male winners – Scotty McCreery, Lee Dewyze, Kris Allen and David Cook – are terrible, terrible singers and shouldn’t have won. There are perfectly decent reasons those individual singers won; there are also perfectly decent reasons why individual female contestants were eliminated. But  if we rack up all those individual choices and map them out over the space of the past four years, the message is pretty damn clear. Women have a much, much harder time on idol.

There are two reasons why Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me:

1. Female Talent isn’t as recognized as male talent

Here’s the thing: it’s not like there haven’t been some incredibly talented women up on the idol stage in the past four seasons.

(the links, in order, are Season seven’s Carly Smithson (Jesus Christ Superstar), Season eight’s Allison Iraheta (Cry Baby, exit performance), Season Nine’s Katelyn Epperly (The Scientist), Siobhan Magnus (Paint it Black) and Crystal Bowersox (Up to the Mountain) and Season Ten’s Pia Toscano (I’ll Stand by You), Lauren Alaina (Anyways) and Haley Reinhart (House of the Rising Sun))

And it’s not like this season is lacking in female talent.

(links, in order, to Erika Van Pelt (Edge of Glory), Skylar Laine (Stay with Me), Jessica Sanchez (Love You I Do) and Elise Testone (Whole Lotta Love))

So why aren’t they getting the recognition they deserve? Why is it basically impossible for these women, no matter what they do, to win the show?

And listen, I realize I’m ranting about gender disparity on a reality show. But you know what? It does matter. Yes, anyone who gets onto the Idol stage has a great deal of exposure. But the longer you stay on the show, the more chance there is you’ll be successful. A tenth place finisher rarely gets a record deal, a fourth place finisher often does. And the winner, of course, gets a huge boost in both exposure and sales (not to mention a guaranteed record deal). So when women are continually shut out of those spots, it means that women have a much, much harder time making a career out of their singing by going through Idol than men do. Which, of course, plays into the greater societal problems women have in getting recognition (and equal pay) for their work.

Here’s the other thing: American Idol is watched by approximately 30 million viewers. A lot of those viewers are women. A lot of those viewers are young women. When over and over and over again women on Idol are unable to win, or even to crack the top four; when you have week after week after week of only women going home (Season 10! Good times); when singers like Jessica Sanchez, who do everything it’s possible to do, are still voted out seventh – young women get the message that no matter what you do, no matter how talented you are, there is a glass ceiling, and you can’t break it. Women can be on the stage, but remember, it really belongs to the men.

So, this is bad enough. But here’s the other reason Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me.

(by the way, I realize that a year ago, I’d never watched Idol, and now I can name the ten best female performers of the last five years in a single breath. There is a land called ‘obsessiva’ and I am it’s Queen).

2. The way people react.

I am not the only person to have remarked on Idol’s gender problem. It’s pretty much a universally known fact; you’d have to have your head buried in the sand to avoid it.

And people talk about it. And they try to figure out why women are voted out so early and so often. They too, wonder why women never win anymore. And no matter what, the answer always, always, always, ALWAYS ends up being (drumroll, please): TEENAGE GIRLS.

Mean Girls

Scarier than Genghis Khan and Nuclear Weapons put together

Yes, everyone. The collective wisdom has spoken. American Idol has been completely ruined because teenage girls only vote for cute boys, and refuse to vote for talent.

A collection of quotes, for our edification:

“American Idol is ruined because all these girls are voting for the same boyfriend –  I mean singer.”

“And hopefully these teen girls don’t vote them out. Stop messing with people’s careers and lives!”

“Teenage girls of America. Look, there are a lot of places to see cute boys. Google is very useful – ” “You know what they can do? They can go get a boyfriend. Or a friend who is a boy who is cute.”

“Of course, they’re going to vote for the cute boys. I mean, come on!”

A female contestant, after getting eliminated: “Once [teenage girls] get a crush, we’re done.”

“These teen girls have no clue, are dumber than a box of rocks. They’re stupid, selfish and vote against the talented ones because they’re not white boys.”

All of these comments either come from well-known idol critics (including my favorite, Michael Slezak, who is usually SO GOOD with the feminism) or from message boards on well-reputed idol fan sites. I edited some of these comments for misogynistic language. Believe me when I say that these are some of the least insulting comments I’ve seen. There’s a whole lot worse out there, and most of it involves references to prostitution or female dogs.

Over and over again, the commentary turns into an attack on teenage girls. Teen girls ONLY vote for people based on attractiveness. Teenage girls ONLY vote for boys (come on!) And then it turns into: Teen girls are stupid. Teen Girls have no taste. Teen Girls suck. Teen Girls are ruining people’s lives. I hate Teen Girls.

Inevitably, these discussions turn into a giant excuse to talk about how much teenage girls suck.

This drives me NUTS. Just… NUTS.

Community Annie

And you don’t want make me nuts.

The implication is that teenage girls can’t possibly have taste that is unrelated to their sexual attraction to contestants. They can’t like a male contestant because they like his music. It can only ever be about his cute looks. Oh, Culturally Disoriented, you and your cute beliefs that young women can make rational decisions! You’re so funny! And so ridiculous! (but then again, you do have lady bits, so the logic thing can’t come easily to you).

Yes, let us reiterate again  that teenage girls always have terrible taste, and anything they like is terrible. Hey, remember Twilight!

And it bothers the hell out of me.

Listen, I’m not sure people are aware of this, but when you dismiss an entire gender’s taste level, intelligence and ability to make rational decisions? Where I’m from, we call that sexism.

Dictionary

Dictionaries! Read ’em.

Teenaged boys are allowed to like Jessica Alba and Transformers and the first three Star Wars movies. And even though we as a culture have decided that Jessica Alba is a bad actress and Transformers and Star Wars (the prequels) are terrible movies, we don’t insult teenage boys for liking them.  When people point out the misogyny in comic books, or the ridiculous way women are drawn, the reaction isn’t “don’t the teenage boys who read this suck?” The reaction is “well, boys will be boys.”

I ask only for consistency. If “boys will be boys,” then  girls should be allowed to like what they like without anyone shaming them for it. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people questioning their intelligence or generosity. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people calling them sluts.

I mean, for crying out  loud, people.

Yes, let’s talk about the gender disparity on American Idol. Please. We need to do it. But let’s not try to solve the problem of female singers on idols by tearing down other women. Let’s not get into a game of “every teen girl sucks, except the teen girls on idol, who are so awesome they need to be protected from OTHER teenage girls.” (hello hypocrisy). Let’s stop taking the gender disparity on Idol as a giant excuse to talk about how much we hate teen girls, and how much teen girls are clearly always ruled by their hormones. It’s insulting. It’s misogynistic. And most importantly, it’s not true.

That’s the most infuriating thing about this whole discussion: no one actually knows whether or not the majority of voters are teenage girls, and no one knows who they’re voting for. There’s no data. There’s no concrete information. We’re just guessing. All of these allegations are unsubstantiated.

Frankly, I don’t buy the “teenage girls are ruining idol” explanation in the least. There are so many better reasons women don’t win idol. There are so many provable reasons women don’t win idol. But of course, to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has a gender bias. And it’s so much easier to blame it on the girls.

So if teenage girls aren’t to blame for the gender disparity, who is?

The show itself.

I’ll start with the judges.

Judges are important on American Idol. Despite Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer’s) claim that viewers aren’t sheep and will vote for whomever they want the contestants only get to sing for 90 seconds or so. And then the judges get to talk about it for at least as long, if not longer. You think that kind of power doesn’t matter?
Please. The people the judges like are almost always the last people standing. Last year’s Haley Reinhart was one of the few exceptions to the rule.

Haley Reinhart House of the Rising Sun

You Will Respect her Authority

There are two “special” advantages the judges can give: opening up the top 24 (having an extra performer or two allowed to compete for America’s votes) – and the judge’s save, where they prevent a performer from being eliminated. The judges must be aware that there is a gender disparity – and yet they continually these “special” advantages onto male performers. This year, after selecting the top 24, the judges decided to choose an extra “surprise” contestant from the people who had already been eliminated. Of course, that person got an automatic boost because they were “saved” from elimination. It was a man.

…Yes, the perfect solution to the problem of women appearing in the top ten less is to add an extra guy. Well played, judges. Well played!

The Judge’s save, meanwhile, has been used three times. Until Jessica’s elimination, all the “saved” people were male. And even more importantly: none of the men who were saved were frontrunners. No offense to Matt Giraud, Casey Abrams and Michael Lynch, but when they were eliminated (and saved) almost no one thought they were going to win. They were really talented people who went home too soon. Simon Cowell even said to Matt as he was saving him that he didn’t think Matt could win. The people who got the save weren’t people like Adam Lambert or Scotty McCreery – male singers who had a shot at the title.

Jessica Sanchez, our sole female “saved” contestant, on the other hand is a frontrunner. Before her elimination, many pundits thought she would be the winner; almost everyone thought she’d make the top three. In other words, it wasn’t until a potential female victor was eliminated that the judges were willing to use their save on a woman. Until then, they were very happy to let women get eliminated, all while saving men who probably weren’t going to win.

Speaking of “saves.” Judge Jennifer Lopez has twice begged voters to vote for someone this season. Both times, they’ve been men (none of the other judges have actually asked the audience to vote for a specific contestant)

Outside of these special advantages, there are all kinds of invisible, informal advantages that the judges give male contestants. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think either the production or the judges are doing this on purpose. I don’t think they all sit in a room and go “yes, this is the way we will prevent women from ever winning the crown, MUAHAHAHAHA.” But even if their intention is not to cause a disparity, the reality is that the show has created an uneven playing field for male and female contestants. How have they done it?

First, the Judges recognize male contestants more often. Two weeks ago on Idol, the judges gave an unprecedented FIVE standing ovations in the course of a single show. Every single male performer except one got a standing O, and the one who didn’t was mentioned over and over in the show as having “set the bar.” Only one female performer received a standing ovation, despite the fact that most critics thought performers like Skylar Laine or Jessica Sanchez (neither of whom received a standing ovation) performed better than Deandre Brackensick and Heejun Han (both of whom received one).

Second, women tend to be far more critiqued than men. In Seasons 7, 8, 10 and 11, the main person criticized by the judges was a woman: Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado in season 7; Allison Iraheta in season 8; Haley Reinhart in season 10 and Hollie Cavanaugh in Season 11. And it’s not because the other performers are flawless either.

Look, if you’ve decided that you can’t possibly give constructive feedback to everyone and have to concentrate on one performer and one performer alone… could you at least choose a male punching-bag every once in a while? Variety: it’s the spice of life.

Moreover, the Judges – and the producers – all seem to have an idea that there’s only one template for a female singer: a cute, young, peppy, pop-balladeer. Men get lots of roles they can play successfully – grown-ass men like David Cook, young heartthrobs like Scotty McCreery; dark, edgy rockers like Adam Lambert; masterful musicians like Casey Abrams and Kris Allen.

Women are far more restricted. Many critics (and fans like me) believe the reason Haley Reinhart was torn to shreds on a weekly basis by the judges (despite her near-flawless performances) was because she was a blues-rock singer. Meanwhile, her competitor Lauren Alaina, a country-pop balladeer, was almost never criticized. Simon Cowell spent a good ten hours of Season 11 making fun of Siobhan Magnus for being “weird.” Allison Iraheta, a sixteen year old Rocker, received critiques from the judges for not having any “personality” and being too “dark.”

Siobhan Magnus

Why don’t the judges like weird women?

Iraheta who had a delightful sense of humor, once replied that it’s “not like I’m cutting myself.” These remarks are particularly ironic because Allison shared the stage with Adam Lambert – possibly the most provocative, darkest performer to come on the idol stage (I say with love – I’m a huge Lambert fan) – and who was never critiqued for his performance style.

Allison Iraheta Adam Lambert Slow Ride

Adam and Allison: They are the Rockers. And you will respect Their Authority (regardless of gender).

A subset of this problem is the clothes issue: while I’ve never heard a man criticized for his fashion choices by a judge, many, many female contestants have had their style questioned. Allison Iraheta and Carly Smithson being the two who come to mind first – and they were, of course, women who didn’t dress like pop stars. They dressed like rockers.

(possibly because they WERE rockers)

Allison Iraheta Cry Baby

Allison Iraheta: She will Rock You

As Michael Slezak once said, “Simon isn’t happy unless the women are Whitney Huston and singing “Against All Odds” in a pageant gown.”

Unfortunately, even though Simon Cowell has left American Idol, his attitude remains. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Whitney Huston. The problem is that while men will be praised by the judges for all kinds of performance styles, women will only be praised if they fit the One True Female template.  Men have all kinds of roads to the title; women only have one. And it’s all kinds of ironic, because the women who dominate the pop-charts right now – Kei$ha, Lady Gaga, Adele – are not cute, peppy pop-balladeers.

(I should add: Lady Gaga’s fanbase is primarily young… and female. So the “teenage girls only like cute conventional boys” narrative? Not so much.)

Women also almost never get credit for “artistry.” Judges will tell contestants like James Durbin or Casey Abrams that they weren’t just singers, they were “artists.” Usually these praises come after a contestant has done something really interesting with their song, rearranging it or reworking it in order to prove that they’re not just singing Karaoke. Which is great, and they should be praised for doing something original. “You have the heart and soul of an artist,” Jennifer Lopez said to James Durbin last season. Randy once said to a male performer that he was proud to be judging “artists” as well as “pop stars.”Kara DiGuardi called Matt Giraurd a “true artist.”

The trouble is, I’ve never heard a judge call a woman an artist. Or give her credit for song rearrangement. I’m sure it’s happened – it’s not like I’ve watched the show for that long. But again, as Michael Slezak said “somehow, it’s always easier for a guy with an acoustic guitar to get credit for song rearrangement than a girl.” Female contestants like Crystal Bowersox, Carly Smithson, Haley Reinhart, Katelyn Epperly, Allison Iraheta and Siobahn Magnus would make radical – and successful – changes to songs, and the judges would never praise them for it. And yes, this does matter: I don’t always know when a song has been rearranged, because I’m not always familiar with the original. So when the judges tell me Adam is a great song re-arranger, but never mention Allison’s endeavors, I assume Adam is a more well-rounded singer/artist than Allison.

While a man can be a great singer and a great artist, a woman on Idol can only be a great singer. It’s another weapon in their arsenal that men have, and women don’t.

Speaking of things men can do, but women can’t: women can’t make the judges emotional. I realize this sounds like the weirdest critique ever, but seeing a judge cry or lose it because of a performer makes a huge difference. After listening to ninety critiques, I always remember the ones where Jennifer Lopez started crying.

And when you think back, the people who have made the judges cry? Men. James Durbin. Chris Medina. Joshua Ledet. Adam Lambert. Michael Lynche. Lee Dewyze. Listen, I can’t necessarily yell at the judges for crying – it’s not a reaction they can control. But when the judges don’t cry, they’ll often say things like “this touched my soul” etc. And even then – even when no physiological reaction is needed – they usually say those things to men. Well, of course, Culturally Disoriented. Don’t be ridiculous. Men are artists. And they can affect you emotionally. But women? Women can be pretty, and perfect – but they can’t make you cry.

And, in a case of hitting someone when they’re down, women tend to get the “cold and emotionless” critique far more than men do.

Speaking of which, I’m going to turn back to the teen girls issue to talk about the “cuteness” factor. You know what group of people are really, really, REALLY obsessed with cute boys? (hint: it’s not teen girls).

It’s the Judges (and the Production).

Listen, maybe teen girls are voting for male contestants because of their looks. But the judges are practically begging them to do it. During critiques, they’ll pause to ask the audience: “Ladies, what do you think of this man?” Or Jennifer Lopez to Casey Abrams “I think you’re sexy!” Or Simon Cowell will tell Kris Allen that it was a mistake to reveal “the wife” too soon (because Kris should pretend to be an available heartthrob).

And this kind of critique happens all the time. The message? You should pay attention to these boys looks. They matter. (Sometimes they seem to matter more than the actual singing – I remember a Casey Abrams performance where all the judges could talk about was his “sexy” appearance).

During Top nine week of Season 11, Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer) actually went into the audience and pushed a group of girls onstage to hug Scotty McCreery. The host, Ryan Seacrest, started calling Scotty “Scotty the Body” (urgh. God. No. Please. No. (he’s sixteen, you maniacs)). The judges and the production basically frame these men as sex objects.

Scotty McCreery Elvis Girls

(Seriously, judges/ producers. Don’t you have google? Don’t you have access to boyfriends or hot-friends-who-are-men? Why else would you constantly comment on the male performers looks, or turn them into sex objects?)

But they judges don’t do the same thing for female performers. Despite the fact that Haley Reinhart, Pia Toscano and Lauren Alaina were all attractive women, the judges never said to them “the boys at home are really going to eat that up.” (excuse my heteronormativity here). When Crystal Bowersox had a boyfriend, Simon Cowell didn’t tell her she should “hide” that information in order to seem available. Nigel Lythgoe doesn’t send a group of teen boys to hug Jessica Sanchez or Skylar Laine.

I know the judges call the women “beautiful.” But there’s a difference between calling someone “beautiful” and “sexy.” Sexy frames you as an object of desire. And desire… makes people vote. It reminds me of So You Think You Can Dance, where Cat Deeley introduces the contestants by saying “these are the girls… and here are your boys.” The “your” makes it more personal; as an audience member, you’re instantly more engaged. Comments like “ladies, what do you think of this man” have a similar effect.

Listen, I’m kind of grateful for the lack of sexual objectification, to be honest. I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Lauren Alaina, or sixteen year old Jessica Sanchez, as an object of lust. Steven Tyler’s already crossed the line a few times, and it was super-awkward. But I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Scotty McCreery as a sex object either (gaaaaaah). There’s got to be a happy medium. Maybe dial back the sexualization of the boys, and throw in a few remarks like “I’m sure all the boys appreciated that song, Jessica.”

Commentators are right on one count: sex sells. And when only men are framed as sex objects, when only men are “cute,” when only men are desirable – then men have a distinct advantage. And if you’re not going to give the “sexy” edit a rest for men, then girls should get it too. At least sexualize equally, damn it!

(*AHA. Last night Steven Tyler said that Elise’s singing struck a chord in every man’s heart. Clearly, he’s reading my mind.)

Here’s my point (which has been almost twenty paragraphs in the making – I prefer my rants long and bitter). Maybe people aren’t voting for the best singer anymore. But neither are the judges. Over and over, the judges emphasize that you should vote because of “artistry” and “emotional connection” and “hotness.” The standards have changed.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if women were praised for artistry, looks and emotions. But they’re not: only men are “hot” “artists” and “emotional.”

It’s no wonder women can’t win American Idol. They’re thrown into the ring with only one path to victory – cute pop-ballader – and no weapons. They must fight their way through judge critiques of their personality and clothing, and pray they won’t be a scapegoat that season. Their male competitors, meanwhile, get the weapons of “hotness” “artistry” “emotional connection” and “overpraising.” They get the “special advantages” of Judges saves and extra spots in the Top 24. And they have many, many paths to victory – from rock to pop to soul.

Girls in Armor

Could we give the women some armor, please?

We live in a misogynistic society. It’s sad, but true. I’m not surprised that we see that misogyny manifest itself in the format of American Idol. I’m not surprised the judges favor men.

Like Elise Testone so appropriately sang: this is a man, man’s world…

I’m not, at the end of the day, even that surprised that people refuse to see the very real, provable reasons why women don’t win American Idol. Because to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has problems with sexism.

And it’s so much easier to blame the teen girls.

Ironically, the people who have the biggest problem with women and Idol? The (non-female, non-teen) fans. The fans who, every time this issue is raised, go to the message boards and rant about the “stupid teen girls” and the “sluts” and the “bitches” who keep their favorites from winning. The fans who call teen girls whores, and accuse them of wanting boyfriends rather than voting for talent. The fans who say teen girls can’t have taste.

Those fans? Those fans have serious problems with women.

And so does the show.

But like I said: it’s so much easier to blame teen girls.

And so that we all remember that:

a) Teenage girls are awesome
b) Women on Idol are awesome

I give you teenager Allison Iraheta’s exit performance of Cry Baby

ETA: I wrote a followup a week before the Idol finale: And In Breaking News,  American Idol is Still Sexist.

Related Posts:

Haley Reinhart, or Why I started Watching American Idol

Why is this Blog Called Culturally Disoriented?

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction For Women

Reactions to the Hugo Shortlist

*** ETA: I wrote this post BEFORE the top eight results, when Colton Dixon was voted off the show. Colton’s exit means  it’s the first time in who knows how long that there are more women on the show than men (hurrah!). It also means that Jessica Sanchez is safe for another week (hurrah!). I do think my commentary is still applicable – the Jessica Sanchez  situation is one example of a much wider situation. It should also be noted that this means that all the contestants have been in the bottom 3 except Phillip Phillips (male) – and that no one who has appeared in the Bottom 3 before top 5 EXCEPT Fantasia Barino has gone on to win the show. Which… is a not-so-good sign for the women.

I do hope that the trend of women losing Idol is reversing course. And I hope there is a female winner this year – I prefer the women to the men this season, although I do love Joshua Ledet. And I was a Colton fan, I will admit, so I’m sad he was voted off.