Tag Archives: Gender Roles

International Women’s Day and VAWA Converge, Illuminating Progress and Struggles Towards Gender Equity

Credit: Dominik GwarekOn the eve of International Women’s Day – March 7 – President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law. And on March 8, folks around the world celebrated women’s achievements and ongoing struggle towards equality.

I find myself puzzling over the fact that there is no Violence Against Men Act, nor popular observance of International Men’s Day in the U.S. What does this inconsistency say about the genders? We’re not equal, but we’re trying?

The reauthorization, which first passed in 1994 with bipartisan support under President Clinton, recognizes to some extent the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault which disproportionately affect women. VAWA reauthorization did not pass easily this time around, and it got tabled a year ago amid bipartisan bickering over added provisions for Native American, LGBT, and immigrant victims. Those provisions made it into the now-law.

The VAWA reauthorization provides needed funding and services to victims of violence but doesn’t ultimately address the cultures of violence, the reasons women are often victimized, and why acts like rape continue to take place in high numbers throughout the world.

International Women’s Day derived from women’s labor struggles, which persist today. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Steph Solis quotes Carol Rosenblatt’s concern about the factory fires in Bangladesh that killed many female garment workers to demonstrate that women still work for low wages in poor conditions. In addition to freedom from violence and access to fair wages and work conditions, women around the world still fight for equal access from food and clean toilet facilities to maternal health care and parental leave after birth.

In the Guardian, a somewhat sour Suzanne Moore describes International Women’s Day events as, “a strange mixture of talking about female genital mutilation (bad) and then listening to some great women musicians (good).” Both of the Christian Science Monitor’s stories about the international celebration opened with descriptions of the Doodles designed for the day on the Google homepage (one of which makes the G out of the Venus symbol). I’m not sure of the value of Google’s recognition of the day, though it likely promotes awareness to those unfamiliar with the holiday.

Folks throughout the world celebrate International Women’s Day with different practices, some women get time off work, or additional help with housework from the men in their lives. This year in the U.S. women can take the day to appreciate ongoing support for victims of violence though the sentiment remains bittersweet – because the VAWA law and International Women’s Day serve as landmarks towards gender equity which inadvertently highlight the broad disparities that remain between men and women.

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Gender in Star Wars and Other Media

11212012StarWars-jpg_180602In January, the universe brought my attention to the convergence of two things: the Star Wars sequels and the Bechdel Test. I’ve known of Star Wars for a while (like most of us with a pulse), but the Bechdel Test shed new light for me on the popular series and all the other media I have consumed or will consume in the future.

The Bechdel Test serves as a tool to measure female representation in the media. I often notice when movies and television shows present one-dimensional female characters. And while I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for various fantasies of fictive media, I like for those fictions to represent both women and men.

The Bechdel Test has been around since the year I entered this earth (1985), created by comic artist Alison Bechdel. It’s a sequence of three questions:

  1. Are there more than two women [in a particular piece of media]?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

The first reference to this came from the video game website IGN, in an article titled “Why Star Wars: Episode VII Should Have a Female Protagonist.” Author Lucy O’Brien makes a strong case for the forthcoming Star Wars sequels to feature a female hero. She applies the Bechdel test to Star Wars, and it does not pass all three stages. In fact, Princess Leia, the fairly tough female lead, doesn’t have other women to talk with and she plays a secondary role to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. O’Brien boils her argument down to a simple statement, “girls need heroes too.”

A TED talk that narrowly preceded O’Brien’s commentary features a father, Colin Stokes, as he discusses, “How movies teach manhood.” Stokes also draws on the Bechdel Test to critique Star Wars. Rather than arguing for a new female protagonist, Stokes suggests that a lack of female characters is bad for boys too. In a world in which men and women work together in a variety of circumstances, says Stokes, movies should reflect the cooperative nature of the genders today.

Like these critical fans, I too am looking forward to Star Wars, hoping to see enough tough women (with the men) to pass the Bechdel Test.

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Women’s Rights Paradoxes After the Arab Spring

One paradox of the Arab Spring, said Fatima Sadiqi, is that women took a primary role in the uprising but their political rights regressed after the turmoil. The number of women in Egyptian parliament dropped since the uprising in January 2011, for example.

In her presentation to over 150 people at UW-Madison’s Union South earlier this month, Sadiqi quoted the beginning lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to capture contradictory sentiments about the Arab Spring: “It was the best of times it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was epoch of belief, it was epoch of incredulity…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

Sadiqi visited UW-Madison on November 8 to speak about “North African Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring.” She discussed the challenges that face the Maghreb, the region of North African now struggling to build democracies alongside political Islam.

Sadiqi argued that women’s rights are a “genuine prerequisite for democracy.”

Sadiqi  started the Gender Studies program at the University of Fes in her native Morocco, and she was introduced as the first female linguist in the Arab world. She serves as a professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies. In 2006 she founded the ISIS Center for Women and Development  and, three years later, co-founded the International Institute for Languages and Cultures.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her in advance about her personal journey into the fields of women’s rights and linguistics. But I also learned a lot from her lecture about the Arab spring and the future of women’s rights in the region.

The Qur’an

She shed some light on political Islam and its influence on the Middle East and North Africa (which have unique histories and political dynamics). Political Islam grew from the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the United States, explained Sadiqi.

Islam comes with its own forms of feminism, and Sadiqi pointed out that the women involved in the Arab spring ranged from Islamic feminists to secular feminists; they ranged in age, and they had support from NGOs and some men as well.

“Islamic feminism is the unwanted child of Islamism,” said Sadiqi.

Islamic feminists have been reviewing the Qur’an and other Islamic doctrine to separate the religious tenants from the politicized interpretations. (But this is a big topic for consideration on another day.)

Sadiqi pointed out that Islam is changing, along with Maghreb democracies. She said that there is a diversification in the religious field in North Africa, and while society is not becoming more secularized, there is perhaps a growing separation between Islam and politics. That separation may be facilitated by movement in women’s rights, she said.

In her talk, Sadiqi explored numerous paradoxes inherent in the aftermath of the Arab spring, but she also presented solutions. She suggested that gender equality be included in new constitutions and the policies of formative democracies and that legal action can be an important way for women’s equality to progress. She ended with the slogan from a growing political party in Tunisia:

“Democracy will happen with women, or it will not happen at all.”

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Women in the Olympics: Five Headlines

As a female athlete, sports fan, and inhabitant of this planet, I am pumped for the Olympics. They begin this evening. The media provided a good deal of anticipatory coverage, looking at  the games from many angles:  London weather, steroids, sponsorship agreements,  projected outcomes, and the list goes on and on. A few headlines about women in the games held my attention longer than the others:

  1. More women than men representing the US

The US will send more female than male athletes to the games for the first time this year. The female total reaches 269, eight more than the men on the roster.

  1. But not so in Saudi Arabia

This conservative country only recently lifted a ban on female participation in the Olympics. Keep in mind that women cannot legally drive in this country, and they’ve only recently been granted suffrage. They will vote in their first election in 2015. Sporting leagues for Saudi women often remain underground. Considering such barriers to athletic practices, it’s not surprising that the country has few athletes of Olympic caliber able to compete now that the ban is lifted. A conversation continues around Saudi Olympian Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and whether or not she can wear a headscarf during her judo competition.

  1. Ban lifted for women’s boxing

This will be the first year that female boxer’s will be able to compete in the Olympics. This sport held out as the last with no female counterpart until this year. Female boxers finally have the opportunity to demonstrate they have a place to fight in the ring, and not just ornament it as bikini-ed ring girls.

  1. Sexism remains

Not surprisingly, female athletes are still held to traditional standards of beauty. Regardless of the sport or skill, Olympians tend to get extra attention if they’re considered beautiful or hot. One article on the US women’s soccer team faced criticism for its focus on looks and disregard for skills. That article began, “All of a sudden, the Olympics have got sexy. Really sexy.”

  1. There are only two genders in the Olympics

While the beautiful and feminine athletes get attention for their looks, the less feminine athletes face scrutiny. South African sprinter Caster Semenya had her gender called into question in 2009. After a series of confidential sex verification tests, Semenya was found to have high levels of testosterone and submitted to “treatment” to place her on more equal footing with her female competitors.

Regardless of the controversies humming around women and the Olympics, I am looking forward to seeing weeks of gender balanced sports. I like watching men compete too, but this is the only time every two years when female athletes vie equally for international attention.

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Musings on Mustaches and Masculinities

I spent an afternoon mustached last weekend, and it was fun. At a beer festival in St. Paul, The House of Shandy handed out tattoos of thin ‘staches and furry adhesive ones in various styles. I donned “the smarty.”

I was curious to spend the afternoon with this symbol of masculinity across my face, though admittedly I was pretty far from masculine in my sun dress. My recent completion of a gender studies course in masculinity inspired the temporary transformation. And it was well received. I wasn’t the only person (woman or man) to wear the House of Shandy’s party favor, thus it became more of a playful accessory than a commentary on gender. Thirteen different men complimented my mustache. Some pretended to be jealous. Two women gave me positive feedback. I did get one confused query about where I got it and why I would wear it, but nothing hostile.

me (mustached) with my partner

But there is quite a difference between a satirical, temporary mustache on a female and a woman’s acceptance of her own natural facial hair. Rebecca Nieto makes this distinction in her piece “Hair Trigger,” in which she chronicles her own desire to remove upper lip her at age 12. She also examines the growth of mustache popularity in queer communities, versus its rise in hipster popularity.  If you don’t recognize society’s fierce protection of mustaches as a symbol of masculinity, check out this commercial for the prescription Vaniqa, a product intended to reduce women’s facial hair. In the commercial a beautiful, smooth-skinned woman’s voice drops to a baritone when discussing how her facial hair makes her feel manly, presumably a tragedy for any women trying to leave the house.

Some women, queer or not, have begun to let their – facial – hair down.  Not only is it liberating to free onself from the hassle of waxes, razors, or lasers, but it also sends the message that women can be women without perfectly smooth and hairless (dare I say prepubescent) bodies. Or, on the other hand, women can be choose to be a little masculine with their facial hair.

Gay men arguably took to mustaches as a way to confirm their masculinity in the 70s. R.W. Connell writes about the Castro Clone trend  in his book Masculinities. Gay men are often excluded from hegemonic (i.e. mainstream) masculinity because of their sexuality. By accessorizing as a tough, manly man (think Ron Swanson’s ‘stach), gay men affirmed their masculinity despite attempts to feminize them.

While I wore my temporary mustache I couldn’t help but consider the politics that center on these two to three square inches of hair. A hairy upper lip says a lot. And even though my experiment with it didn’t shock or shatter stereotypes, it’s fun to play with people’s perceptions. Nieto concludes, “With every imitation and copy, the mustache is warped, destabilized from being a symbol of purely masculine citizenship, and brought to a place of queer play.” And really, the mustache has only the power that we allow it. It remains a symbol of masculinity, but it doesn’t have to be confined to a male body.

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Happy International Women’s Day!

I wonder as I write the title to this post, if life today can be considered a happy time for women. As women’s health sits center stage with the religious freedom controversy, for better or worse, it has a lot of people fired up.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, headlined on last night’s The Daily Show with an inspiring, no-nonsense attitude and an arsenal of statistics. She showed uncompromising confidence in Planned Parenthood, and the support they provide to the entire nation (supporting American women = supporting our nation). She acknowledged that one in five American women receives services from Planned Parenthood in her lifetime. She also pointed out that 90% of care from Planned Parenthood is preventative. I highly recommend the interview to curious or skeptical readers.

A few days ago, Jessica Winter provided a wry, critical look at how legislators, employers, judges, and commentators throw their weight around to the detriment of women’s civil liberties. The article confronts the status quo through a serial list of offences against women. She implies that in this world where talking heads resound and court cases set precedents, a slight to one woman is a slight to all women. I can’t think of a better message for International Women’s Day.

Photo from NPR, via The Daily Beast

But women are talking about more than just health care. Newsweek hosts the third annual Women in the World Summit, with an impressive line up of speakers. Since Tina Brown took over as editor, they have done a great job covering women’s issues. A few days ago they published a retrospective pieceabout how female journalists rose to prominence with NPR when other media outlets were not so open to women. These women took the slim opportunities available to them and made a name for themselves. The story describes the “Fallopian Jungle” where these “Founding Mothers” worked.

The internets flow today with a surplus of stories by, for, and about women. I can’t possibly reference all the stories I’m interested in, but I hope they extend beyond International Women’s Day. Here’s to today’s conversation!

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Late Retrospective for Black History Month: From Female Slave, to Southern Gentleman, to Freedom

1. Ellen and William Craft decided they would rather risk their lives than risk the severance of their budding family. These Georgian slaves in the mid-19th century sought a way to escape when they first decided to marry.

My wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror (Craft 27).

2. The couple considered various escape routes, aware that failure would mean death, or worse. Slaveholders seemed to enjoy the pursuit and punishment of escaped slaves. William and Ellen would not risk escaping 1,000 miles without a sure plan. They resigned to marry and toil as slaves until a path to liberty presented herself

3. In December 1848 the idea dawned. Only eight days to freedom

4. Ellen Craft, a fair-skinned slave, must take on the disguise of a white slave master. She would travel from Georgia as the owner of her darker-skinned husband. This clever plan would keep them under the radar, and yet require Ellen to cross firm caste, race, and class lines in disguise.

At first she shrank from the idea. She thought it almost impossible for her to assume that disguise, and travel a distance of 1,000 miles across slave States. … [But] the more she contemplated her helpless condition, the more anvious she was to escape from it (Craft 30).

Image

5. Over the course of four days William purchased a disguise piece by piece. Ellen tailored herself a pair of pants and hid all the items in a locked drawer. They convinced their master and mistress to permit them a few days of Christmas holiday, as they were trusted and well liked. The leave allowed them a head start towards the North.

Just before the time arrived for us to leave I cut my wife’s hair square at the back of the head and got her to dress in the disguise and stand out on the floor. I found that she made a most respectable looking gentleman (Craft 35).

6. When William opened the door to flee, Ellen burst into tears. A perilous journey waited for them, but remaining meant a life of slavery and uncertainty. William sympathized. After a prayer, they set off.

We were like persons near a tottering avalanche; afraid to move, or even breathe freely, for fear the sleeping tyrants should be aroused (Craft 42)

7. Once on the train, William spotted his master peering through the train cars, suspicious that the couple might flee. He failed to recognize Ellen, and the train pulled away before he could find William

8. Ellen endured the first leg of the trip next a friend of her master who had known her since childhood. She pretended to be deaf to avoid contact with him. He did not recognize her and treated her like a gentleman.

9. A trader en route sought to separate the two and buy William. Slaves on free soil could not be trusted. A military officer recommended she stop saying “thank you” and “if you please” to her slave.

10. They were held up in Charleston, where legislators feared abolitionists would smuggle slaves through to the north. The same military gentleman, who provided Ellen with advice on how to treat her “slave,” vouched for them.

11. On the train to Richmond,Virginia, Ellen, pretending to be asleep, overheard a young women swooning over her male persona:

After [Ellen had] been lying there a little while the ladies, I suppose, thought he was asleep; so one of them gave a long sigh, and said, in a quiet fascinating tone, “Papa, he seems to be a very nice young gentleman.” But before papa could speak the other lady quickly said, “Oh! Dear me, I never felt so much for a gentleman in my life!” (Craft 60).

12. Officers stopped the couple in Baltimore, their last transfer before Philadelphia — and freedom. The law required registration and documentation for slaves. Their courage waned. The room filled with tension. The train’s captain passed through, acknowledged them, and then sounded the train’s bell for departure. An officer waved them through indifferently at the last moment.

13. They arrived in Pennsylvania on Christmas day. Eight days after they conceived the plan, four days after their flight began, Ellen collapsed on William. They found refuge in local abolitionists.

14. The couple moved to England where they raised a family, received an education, and spoke out against slavery.

15. Ellen became a symbol for the anti-slavery movement.

[The picture of her as a man] sold so well William hoped the proceeds might assist him in securing his still-enslaved sister (McCaskill 515).

16. Reluctantly, Ellen challenged many aspects of the status quo, so that she could live her life as a mother and educated lady. In an effort to escape one institution she subverted many.

With her appearance as an Africa woman ‘dressed’ as a white woman dressed as a white Southern man, Ellen elides the distinctions between the genders and scrambles the identities of haughty mistress and humble slave (McCaskill 520).

Sources:

Running a thousand miles for freedom, or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft. 1860. William Craft.

“Yours Very Truly”: Ellen Craft–The Fugitive as Text and Artifact. 1994. Barbara McCaskill
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Rape Jokes and Equal Opportunity Killing: Pros and Cons of Female Progress in the Macho Worlds of Comedy and Video Games

Women comedians thriving in their industry draw on a realm of issues to tickle, shock, or gross out audiences more familiar with the male-centered scene. But the racy topics rising from the likes of Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer push more than the glass ceiling or the “taste taboo ceiling.” A recent article in the New York Times touches on rising female comics and the use of rape humor in their acts.

Jason Zinomen writes, recounting Silverman, “if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: ‘I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.’”

Rape may fall logically on the list of things more approachable by female comics. But for my part, too many people avoid, or remain ignorant of, the realities of sexual assault. Making light of sexual violations belittles the physical and psychological trauma of the experience. That said, I am not here to criticize the risqué aspects of stand up comedy, whose primary purpose seems provocation.

I am interested in the way that women make a place for themselves within comedy entertainment. Vanity Fair, in 2008, printed the article “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” It covered 12 contemporary funny women, remarking on the requirement that they be simultaneously clever and sexy. The article featured Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, whose recent movie Bridesmaids included female-centered humor, and some ground breaking gross-out scenes with women.

But female comedians aren’t the only ones breaking ground.  Female reviewer Emma Boyes touts the third installation of Saints Row, a violent, gangster genre video game, as “good for women.”

This game which features gratuitous violence and prostitution allows players to control the gender of their avatar. Within both realms (game playing and character creating) players experience gender neutrality uncharacteristic of video games in general.

Boyes writes, “the best thing about the way women are depicted in Saints Row is the fact that it never seems to occur to anyone to treat them any differently.”

The game, according to Boyes, includes a substantial number of bad-ass female characters and no diminutive language when referring to them. Male and female prostitutes are featured and objectified. Players have a great deal of flexibility when creating their avatars.

“All outfits, makeup, and hair styles are available to both genders, so there’s nothing stopping you from, say, being a girl with a beard or a fella with pigtails, lip gloss, and high heels. You can wear a sexy dress. You can wear a power suit. You can be androgynous,” writes Boyes.

Boyes’ review also includes disclaimers that the game is saucy, provocative, and sometimes immature. Gender equity will not necessarily draw a flock of female gamers if they weren’t already interested in gangster games. And the benefits, or consequences, of playing at theft and death remain debatable for all genders.

Does the new installation of Saints Row demonstrate progress? Yes, definitely. Although equal opportunity violence and rape humor still leave a bad taste in my mouth, women deserve a place  in these fields. I remain hopeful that females advance in comedy and gaming on their own terms.

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Exploring Gender-Bending on Halloween

A mormon church in Utah posted fliers for a Halloween event and requested “no masks or cross-gender dressing.” This sends two messages:

1) the gender binary is fixed, and

2) it is never acceptable to assume a gender you weren’t born with.

The first point here precludes the second. The gender binary depends on the belief in two separate and immutable sexes: male and female. Images that support the gender binary bombard us daily: advertisements, television shows, and public figures portray beautiful, stylized women and stoic, powerful-seeming men. Reinforcement of the gender binary is ubiquitous.

The gender binary is not the only way to consider gender. Many people throughout the world do not identify with their birth-determined-gender. Jessica Who? (a blog) explores personal transgender experiences and transgender issues in society. Native Americans refer to those who occupy mixed gender roles as “two spirit.” (Check out the award-winning documentary Two Spirits which tells the story of  Fred Martinez who “was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture.”) The binary leaves little room for all people, of various identities, to occupy the liminal space between maleness and femaleness.

In one regard, Halloween cross-dressing may reinforce traditional roles, because that subversive behavior is confined to the holiday. But why shouldn’t a little girl dress as superman? What are her other options? Maybe she fits the binary and identifies as a girl, yet also aspires to superman’s strength and heroism. Should she be discouraged? Consider the controversy last year over a little boy in Ohio who wanted to dress as Daphne from Scooby Doo. His mother supported him, despite criticism from other parents.

Every family and every community value different things. While one neighborhood in Utah prohibited cross-dressing for a holiday that lends itself to subversion, Girl Scouts of Colorado agreed to let a 7-year-old boy — who identifies as a girl — join a local scout troop. The mother of the child,  Felisha Archuleta, told a reporter, “He had a princess birthday, and last year when he turned 7, he had a Rapunzel birthday. I have just basically supported him.”

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Let’s Respect the Women on the Sidelines

I usually enjoy Frank Deford’s commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition. He discusses current issues related to sports and/or language. One of his “columns” on football, which aired on September 21, 2011, under the headline, “No Respect for the Women on the Sidelines” evoked a mixed response from me. Deford examines the role of and the public response towards female football reporters. He describes them as “attractive,” “ditsy,” and references the website sidelinehotties.com.

To his credit, Deford points out that these women who understand the nuances of the game, are not able to demonstrate their expertise through their interviews. He explains that these women are pigeon-holed in the role of “scrolls,” asking the same questions every game.

I suppose the issue that irks me about this particular story is that Deford bounces back and forth between defending these reporters and further marginalizing them. He acknowledges that women’s voices provide a nice balance against male voices, and he acknowledges that these reporters are smart yet disadvantaged. However, Deford fails to leave room for change.

There is no explanation or critique of why women have to stay on the sidelines. Women have “no respect” at the beginning of the story, and at the end, they remain “down on the field with the cheerleaders.” I might enjoy watching football a little more myself, if the female reporters could demonstrate they are more than just “sideline hotties.” Why not reach out to the female demographic by proving women have a respectable role to play in the arena?

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