Tag Archives: stereotypes

Gendered value

29 Jan

Italian women partisans

For many years, American women have served in the United States Armed Forces, in many different capacities: in both Iraq and Afghanistan women served in ground combat troops. Despite the fact that a female soldier was not technically allowed to be in combat troops, this prohibition never meant that women were not involved in on-the-ground battle, saving lives and risking their own.

However, because of the continued ban, the recognition the women received for their duties and their abilities to move upwards in the Armed Forces chains-of-command were severely limited.  Last week’s decision to lift the ban, basically allowing women to enter into all echelons-upper and lower-within the Armed Forces provoked delight and satisfaction in women in the military.   


Colonel Ellen Haring was one of the two women whose lawsuit provided the final nail in the ban’s coffin. Haring was interviewed last week on NPR, and spoke of the many opportunities she saw bypass her; 80% of the highest position general officers were taken from people (men) in the combat specialities units that women were barred from joining. This structure could not be integrated unless the ban was revoked.

Does this mean that women in the military are now on a fast track to equality? Of course not. Sexual assault in all of the armed forces is only now finally being seen as the epidemic it is. More women in more places will not make this disappear, but it will almost immediately make finding an administrative ear somewhat easier.

In the above interview, Colonel Haring was asked whether the decision would make her more likely to hesitate if her daughter approached her about joining the military, seeing as how now there would be no impediment to her serving in the most dangerous elements available.

Haring replied that she has one daughter and two sons, and would be fearful and hesitant for all three of them. “I don’t think you can place more value on one of your children versus the other simply because of their gender.”

Haring brings up an excellent, contradictory, thorny point. For as long as “women and children first” has been stated, as long as women and children have been counted as casualties of war and men mentioned afterwards, and the idea of Chivalry has been considered infallible, the female sex have been deemed to be of more “value” than the male.

This “value” is by no means monetary, it instead refers to a kind of sacredness that the female embodies. She must be protected, guarded, defended. This type of value is that of the negative: for it is what she is not, what she cannot do, that renders her of value. She is weak, she must be protected. To no longer see her in this light the spell is broken. If she does not need male protection she is no longer weak. If she can protect herself, the historically male duty to protect, defend, and guard becomes no longer male.

To not “value” a daughter more than a son, is to perceive one’s children as equals, in ability, potential and possibility.


Science: it’s a girl thing. Or, what do test tubes have to do with lipstick?

25 Jun


Do outreach projects aimed at increasing the numbers of females and non-whites in a particular field work?


The recent attempt spearheaded by the European Commission to increase the number of female scientists in the European Union and beyond has come under fire by just about everybody. The project introduced itself with a short, flashy video where 3 girls strut towards the camera, wearing short skirts, strappy shoes, and safety goggles. The girls are glimpsed looking through telescopes in fancy outfits, striding through a laboratory with a smart haircut and a knowing smile.

The tagline–“Science: It’s a Girl Thing”–is written across the screen in lipstick, the “i” in Science an opened container of lipstick. This is confusing, to say the least, for it would appear that the project is aimed at the science of cosmetology over and against the hard sciences of biology, chemistry or physics.

Does the European Commission believe that the only way to get girls interested in science is to treat the field like a game of dress-up, using the set design of a Miss Universe pageant?

The female pen

7 Apr

The other day I went to my local big box bookstore, I had felt the urge to take a look at Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. I couldn’t find it, so I asked a worker for help. Her first question was “Alexander?” Her second, upon hearing the writer in question was a woman,  was “Is it a romance?”

Several years ago, at my favorite Bay Area independent bookseller, I was in search of a particular Luce Irigaray title. I looked all over the philosophy section, but to no avail. When I asked as to where her many books, with their varied foci on philosophy, critical theory and psychoanalysis might be located, I was directed to the women’s studies section. Don’t misinterpret me here, I am a vociferous supporter of women’s studies. However, if every philosophy title written by a woman is housed in women’s studies there will be zero titles by women in the philosophy section.

I bring up these two divergent anecdotes because I was reminded of both while reading the recent essay by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times Book Review last weekend:


Wolitzer begins “The Second Shelf” by considering the marketing of and cover art decisions regarding books written by women; specifically, she arrives at some pretty dire conclusions concerning how works of fiction written by women are considered by reviewers, readers and awards committees. Drawing on the Francine Prose essay published in Harper‘s in the late 90’s, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Wolitzer finds that, too often, assumptions are made about female-written texts that often have little to do with the works themselves.

What matters is the sex of the author. Prose goes so far as to provide several examples of pieces that, when first provided as anonymous examples, are rarely written by the assumed sex. Further, when the sex of the author is revealed, reconsiderations concerning its literary, emotional and stylistic weight are nearly immediately made. In light of Prose’s study, Wolitzer’s declares that while a drawing of a wedding ring adorning the cover of a fiction by a woman will likely be relegated to the pink ghetto of rom-com, chick lit or mass-market, this very same circle covers the award-winning recent fiction by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot.

Are these issues merely literary quibbles on my part? I think not. Here’s another example: several months ago, I was listening to a literary critic on NPR’s “All Things Considered” review the very postmodern, streamlined and sardonic novel by Ben Lerner, Leaving Atocha Station. In her conclusion, she states:

“It also, I must say, feels very much like a ‘boy book’ to me — all this thinking about thinking; all this meditation on language. Maybe women — so socialized into constantly scribbling ‘to do’ lists — don’t tend to write meditations like this on the instability of words.” http://www.npr.org/2011/11/09/142109786/life-without-plot-in-leaving-the-atocha-station

Really?!? Lydia Davis anyone? Siri Hustvedt? The great Helene Cixous?

I could go on, but then I would be succumbing to the very condition with which I have a problem. In both the Prose and the Wolitzer pieces, the writers attempt to ameliorate the chauvinistic structures of literary culture with examples upon examples of women writers who don’t fit the stereotypical “feminine” model, and who also can be described within the much larger categories found within the “masculine” model. For each speculative reason as to why fiction written by women might be less acclaimed, have fewer male readers, is generally more pigeonholed, Wolitzer cites authors that do not fit within these norms.

But how do these “exceptions” work with or against these norms? Might they instead beg their destruction? Might not the lists of exceptions and great women writers generate a tiny feeling of desperation, reaction, too much protestation, or even a conformity to the ridiculous way of thinking that forced all these lists and feelings?

As Prose describes, readers turn to or reject gendered generalities of the writer according to their preconceived positions. (“Oh yes, I thought her sentences looked feminine/Her sentences are not feminine, that is why I like her.”) Setting up lists and exceptions and examples does not tear down or successfully critique these myopic ways of reading and reviewing; by providing exceptions, the rules remain intact, the generalizations stay general.

Caitlin Flanagan wants to protect your daughters!

1 Feb






Essayist and op-ed columnist Caitlin Flanagan, recently published author of Girl Land, a memoir-cum manifesto concerning her girlhood and others’, opined in the New York Times on Sunday. Titling her column “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” Flanagan began her essay speaking about the apparently common and troubling condition of hysteria and its popular occupant–the teenage girl. Citing cases from now and the sixties, this country and Tanzania (?!), she wonders as to how and why no one is able to decipher and circumvent the rampant problem.

She concludes that to be a teenage girl is to be confronted with burgeoning sexuality and its concomitant childbearing possibilities, and the approaching departure from  her childhood home. However, she concludes with the assertion that “a teenage girl’s home is more important to her than at any time since she was a small child. She also needs emotional support and protection from the most corrosive cultural forces that seek to exploit her when she is least able to resist…girls need and deserve more protection during this time of their lives.”


Okay, granted Flanagan assuredly has the best of intentions here. But let’s parse this out: what are “corrosive cultural forces”? How is the teenage girl, at this particular point of her life, “least able to resist”? What does “protection” mean in this instance?

These kinds of arguments, be they cloaked in cultural, political, historical, religious, or self-helping terms, must never be taken at face value, or as innocuous or objective assertions or advice. Presumably, “corrosive cultural forces” can be construed to mean just about anything that the user wishes. The inability of the teenage girl to resist can be connected to a long line of (male) prophets, politicians, and “leaders” who warn of the female inability to resist temptation: be she too physically, intellectually, or emotionally weak. From the Biblical tale of Eve onwards, female weakness has long been detailed, storied, condemned, and used as justification for her “protection.”

Further, her “protection” often involves a kind of impedement of her movement, dress, and freedom; all in service of a greater, benign and omniscient protection of her. Most likely Flanagan does not mean to imply that her teenage girl wear a veil, or be kept segregated from the males in her community, or be locked in her room come parties and proms. But it is hard not to come to these hypothetical conclusions….who does Flanagan really want to protect? And what values are automatically in the protection? What does it mean to “protect” someone? And, how does this protection relate to the feminist and cultural history and reality?

The virginity test:great structural contradiction

4 Jan

The international news media last week was full of shocking accounts of Egyptian female protesters who, arrested  during the recent violent military crackdown in Tahrir Square and beyond, were rampantly subjected to so-called “virginity tests” while in police custody.








I had not really heard the term “virginity test” bandied around that often, so I was curious as to what exactly it might mean. Aside from Wikipedia, the sites I found were mostly just articles referring to the tests. (It seems that the term is such an obvious descriptor, that definitions are not totally necessary.) So, I guess the term itself must be thought of in literal terms: the attempt to decipher whether or not the female studied is a virgin. Further, this attempt is activated literally–whether the female subject has a hymen or not.

Why would the Egyptian military and its police arm use such an antiquated, misogynist form of intimidation? Further, how exactly is the virginity of the female protesters relevant?

Well, I guess it is safe to say that the tests themselves point to the Egyptian state being much less advanced than perhaps hoped. Also, despite the general notoriety of Egyptian culture historically, tests such as these point a big fat finger against assumptions of intellectual and cultural advancement.

Think about it this way: the majority of Egyptian men are most likely not virgins. Therefore, in order for them not to be virgins, they are having sexual intercourse with others. It is often commensurate that the female side of the population be statistically in harmony then, as the two sides are having sexual intercourse together. However, if the female partner in the culture is considered more valuable as a virgin, and if the nation-state works to regulate this virginity (as is the case here), then it could be surmised that the men are not having sex with the women, but with unknowable others.

But, who the men are sexing is not as important as the imperative that the women are not. This inherent contradiction–politically, culturally, socially–is not considered important. The status of female purity remains paramount.

So, the average female–be she a protester in Tahrir Square or not–represents sex, in that she must stand in for the lack of it. This all-at-once-while-none-at-all is a form of sexual schizophrenia rooted in a violent misogynist double-standard.

Surely, the men in uniforms and boot-straps are not virgins, nor are they doctors; they are, however, somehow rendered credible judges and juries of the female body and her prior experience. They are somehow considered appropriate evaluators of female citizens they do not know, and to whom they are by no means intellectually, emotionally, or physically superior.

Romantic Comedies and the “women” who populate them…

29 Sep

This week’s New Yorker contains an awesome piece by Mindy Kaling called “Flick Chicks: a Guide to Women in the Movies.”


Because the romantic comedy remains the genre of choice for Kaling, she decided to produce a list of the prevailing archetypes:

1) The Klutz;

2) The Ethereal Weirdo;

3) The Woman Obsessed with her Career and No Fun;

4) The 42-year-old Mother of a 30-year-old Male Lead;

5) The Sassy Best Friend;

6) The Skinny Beautiful Woman who is Gluttonous and Disgusting;

7) The Woman who Works in an Art Gallery.

These types are pretty god-damned specific, but in my opinion they are extraordinarily spot-on. Her self-deprecation, sense of humour, and incisive critical abilities make me pine for a day when Mindy Kaling might write, star, and direct her own romantic comedy! And! Maybe it will be one where the female friends aren’t all super-skinny (except for the super fat one), they aren’t consumed with finding a man, and the final cut isn’t dependent on Judd Apatow.

Inspired, I decided to make my own list of archetypes; these types are not types per se, but actual Hollywood leading ladies, those who conform so much to type that citing their name and a brief description immediately evokes a back catalog of their films.

1) The Jennifer Aniston:

A rueful independent career woman loves her life–don’t get her wrong–but something is missing…a penis! Try as hard or as little as she can (she does run her own flower shop, design firm, catering company), the guys are all cads: they just don’t get her. But she keeps her chin up, her smile wan, and her hair fabulously layered…and she always gets her man!

2) The Jennifer Garner:

The girl that everybody loves…wait! she lives next door! Garner is appealing, and her slow-to-discover beauty emerges easily enough that the desperate loneliness that 30-something women face in romantic comedies (and real life!) almost feels funny! Given that she lives next door, sometimes it takes awhile for the man she loves to realize that his neighbor can be his lover, but it’s all in the journey, right?!

3) The Sarah Jessica Parker:

When SJP burst into fame with the ultimate serialized rom-com Sex and the City, her city-girl lonely artiste was sweet enough that its impossibilities remained irrelevant. Increasingly however, her roles appear smug, elitist and downright repellent. I Don’t Know How She Does It?!

She doesn’t.

4) The Leslie Mann:

Take a skinny body, a famous director-husband, and a willingness to play the shrewish girlfriend, wife, sidekick whenever asked, and you’ve got Leslie Mann! She’ll do anything: vomit all over Steve Carrell, ridicule the poor innocent Seth Rogan while emasculating Paul Rudd, and poop on a toilet!

5) The Cameron Diaz:

You’ll never hear much about her acting chops, but Diaz has the fortitude to possess many of Kaling’s archetypes in her film repertoire, she’s even played the klutz, the ethereal weirdo, and the skinny, beautiful woman who is gluttonous and disgusting all at the same time!

6) The Drew Barrymore:

The adorable, silly underdog that just happens to be so damned cute that you willfully forget her tendency to play the same character (the adorable, silly underdog) in every single movie since Poison Ivy.

7) The Reese Witherspoon:

Given her tendency to detour outside of the romantic-comedy–hence doing more than showing off that smiley blondeness of hers–it’s almost easy to forget her rom-com side. Reese is the girl that, outstanding perkiness aside, is actually smart, maternal, and that girl-next-door the main dude’s been wanting all along, only blonde. Not only that, but she’s super ambitious, loves chihuahuas, wears ugly Christmas sweaters, and sometimes comes back from the dead to repossess that swanky San Francisco apartment of hers.

Can girls riot?

10 Sep

I just saw Attack the Block, a new English film about a group of Council Estate friends who, in the middle of mugging a young neighborhood nurse, glimpse something furry, loud, and bright crash into the park. This sight quickly plunges the boys into a fast-paced, dangerous and deadly war with a band of blobs that just keep coming.

The battle forces the viewer to pick sides: the wannabe thugs vs. the malevolent aliens. It’s a no-brainer, particularly since the boys are led by the charismatic and beguiling Moses.

Although they like to rob and pillage, the depiction of the boys evolves into something more complicated; indeed, the socio-cultural critique of poverty, racism and the English class system hovers over the alien battles, becoming the most overt with the shot of Moses, hanging by the Union Jack from his council apartment. Determined to vanquish the aliens, he will use anything he’s got to protect the block.

This film got me to thinking quite a bit about the recent London (which quickly segued into many English cities) riots, and as the film has arrived so soon after those events it seems impossible not to think about them. So I started doing a little research, trying to determine just who was being highlighted in the images and coverage of the riots. And, just like in Attack the Block, a question arises: where’s the girls? It goes without saying that there were young women running, looting, and protesting alongside all the boys and men, but there were few glimpses of them.

Why is that? Does the sight or thought of a young woman engaged in such acts provoke too many feelings, rendering her inclusion just too complicated? Is it harder to condemn the riots when the “softening” presence of a girl shows up? Is it just too hard to believe that girls can be thugs too? Or were most of them too covered up with scarves, hats, and hoodies to determine the sex of the troublemaker?


According to the opinion piece listed above, it’s not just the culture-at-large that has a difficult time picturing, interpreting, and responding to girls acting out or illegally, the judicial system and penal institutions are generally set up to process, interact, and rehabilitate the male. This void in policy furthers a dearth of understanding, which in turn produces a negativity in terms of change and rehabilitation. Until the girl offender can be seen, she cannot be understood, and hence, nothing changes.