Archive for sexism

Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

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In Defense of the Marilyns

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

215px-LegallyBlondeTheMusicalIn my glamorous life as a contract techie (haha), I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks working backstage as a sound tech on a production of “Legally Blonde, The Musical”.  Based on the 2001 movie, the plot is pretty familiar:  blonde sorority babe Elle Woods pursues a law degree at Harvard in an attempt to win back her ex-boyfriend, and along the way discovers that she’s actually pretty good at this “law” thing when she wins a case by catching two witnesses perjuring themselves:  the first by claiming he’s not gay (but clearly he was, since he didn’t respond to Elle’s cheerleader dancing), and the second by lying about taking a shower after getting a perm (and Elle, of course, knows everything about hair care).  Elle ends up deciding that she’s better off without said ex-boyfriend in her life, getting her law degree, and marrying her T.A. instead.  The show is, of course, plagued by sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia.  If I were to go into all of the problems with the show, this would be a VERY long blog post, so I’m going to stick to just the one that is, in my opinion, the most insidious:  the “Marilyn vs. Jackie” problem.

Something that’s probably very easily overlooked in a casual viewing of this musical is the fact that Elle dropped everything to follow her ex to law school.  She moved across the country, abandoning her dreams of a film career and leaving friends and family behind.  The fact that her dreams changed through the course of the action is all well and good — but  the judgmental attitude towards the life she left behind is something incredibly problematic.  Throughout the musical, her ex refers insultingly to Elle as a “Marilyn” (a reference to a line in the song “Serious”, when he breaks up with her and says that he needs a girlfriend who’s “less of a Marilyn more of a Jackie”, meaning of course Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy).  Others also heap insults on her liking for hair products, fashionable clothing, and hedonistic pleasures, and at the end of the musical it is joked about that Warner (the ex) dropped out of school and pursued a career as a male model instead.  Elle’s blondeness and her fashion sense are a constant focus, and even when she turns this knowledge to her advantage (most notably, when she uses her knowledge of hair care to catch a lying murderer), it gains her no respect from her superiors (her boss initially compliments her, but then makes sexual advances to her and fires her when she refuses him).  And even Elle herself, and the friends & family she left behind in L.A., comment on how she is able to do “more” with her life when she pursues law.

Marilyn_Monroe_-_publicity_-_necklace225px-Mrs_Kennedy_in_the_Diplomatic_Reception_Room_cropped

All of this raises the question:  what’s wrong with being a “Marilyn”?  Elle is clearly a highly intelligent woman.  Combined with her privileged position in life (she comes from money and her parents were able to just casually pay her way through law school — it’s clear she’s never had to work in her life), Elle would likely have found success in any career she chose to put her mind to.  Had she stayed in L.A. and pursued that film career, she’d probably have done well at it (as Marilyn Monroe did).  Who’s to say that her life as a lawyer will truly be more fulfilling than her original plans would have been?  That’s quite a judgment to cast on those who elect to become actors or models or other “superficial” things.

While I think it’s important to support people (of all genders) who pursue non-traditional careers and lives, I think it’s VERY key that we not do so at the expense of those who choose a more straightforwards path.  And yes, it can be a difficult balancing act.  I don’t personally choose to wear makeup in my day-to-day life, but I don’t judge women who do wear makeup in a harsh manner.  I don’t personally want to have kids or a traditional, heteronormative family, but I have to be careful not to treat others badly for wanting those things.  I don’t personally work a traditionally “womanly” job, but I don’t have anything against those women who do (or against women who are homemakers or stay-at-home moms instead of staying in the workforce after marriage).

The important thing to remember about feminism is that women have fought for the past hundred years for the right to choose what to do with our lives.  We can choose to go into traditionally male-centric careers — or not.  And men can choose the same.  We can choose to be Marilyns, knowing that there are other options available to us.  We can decide what is best for us, and what is going to make us happiest and most fulfilled.

Saying that any one choice is not as good as the others, that “manly” jobs are better than “womanly” ones, is just subscribing to the same old problematic set of assumptions that we’ve been trying to shake off in the first place.

Beauty vs. Brains

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

There’s a bit of a flame war going on over at Christie Wilcox’s blog over on ScienceBlogs, and it has inspired me to sit down and write a quick post in response.  For those who don’t keep up with SB, I’ll summarize what’s happening:  Christie is currently competing for a $10 000 blogging scholarship, and her closest competition in the race is a makeup blog called Temptalia.  Intrigued by the juxtaposition of two blogs with such very different content, Christie wrote a post about some of the biological reasons why makeup is effective.  Flames ensued, as Temptalia readers became enraged at the perceived slur against their passion for makeup (although I honestly have to say, I don’t see where they’re getting the impression that Christie is bashing them — she’s just looking at it from a different angle, not saying that her take on it is somehow “better”).  The flames were, of course, fanned by many SB commenters, some of whom have been very lacking in tact in their dismissals of Temptalia’s content.  SB commenters are often lacking in tact when it comes to non-science topics and non-scientist commenters, so no surprise there.

Anywhos.  All of this shit-flinging has gotten me thinking about a topic that often intrigues me: the western perception that brains and beauty cannot exist within the same person at the same time (especially if that person is a woman).

There are a few stereotypes that we all know.  The “dumb blonde” is one that I run up against pretty regularly — it’s one of the reasons I prefer to keep my hair dyed, instead of its natural shade, because people do treat you as though your IQ is lower when your hair is blonde.  The “sexy librarian” is another:  the woman who looks dowdy and bookish, but then removes her glasses and becomes a bombshell, defying all expectations.  The “damsel in distress” is beautiful, but totally incapable of taking care of herself — same goes for the “princess”, who needs the support of a prince to give her happiness.  The media rarely gives us a female protagonist who is both drop-dead gorgeous AND incredibly brainy (sci-fi is probably the best genre in that regard, with thanks going out to Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols for starting the trend, but I’d argue that us smart-and-pretty types are still kind of underrepresented).  Beautiful actresses and models who have brains and minds of their own are often encouraged to hide the fact (how many people know that Lisa Kudrow has a biology degree, or that Natalie Portman went to Harvard, has a graduate degree, and speaks 4 languages?), playing unintelligent or subservient characters who require constant help and support from more intelligent (or male) individuals.  Women who are more in-your-face about their braininess, like Sigourney Weaver, are often criticized for being “butch”, “bitchy”, or “feminazis”, and their beauty is downplayed.

Being both beautiful and brainy is, apparently, a difficult combination.  And if you do happen to possess both of those traits, then you can’t possibly be a nice person, too.  Having all three would just be too much. [/sarcasm]

It’s this stereotype, I think, that underlies the hostility going on over at Christie’s blog.  Women who enjoy science and technology get sick of being treated like butchy/bitchy girls, while women who enjoy makeup and beauty get sick of being treated like superficial, brainless princesses.  Defensiveness ensues, creating even more hostilities between the two groups, despite the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying both sides of the equation.  I’m a biology/physics nerd, I have a passion for arts and literature, and I’m also (if I do say so myself) pretty damn good looking.  Dying my hair and wearing pretty clothes doesn’t detract at all from my knowledge, nor does knowing lots of facts about a variety of topics make it more difficult for me to apply makeup or make gorgeous jewelry.  Nor does any of that stuff make it more difficult for me to be friendly and kind to other people.

So yes, when I put on makeup I do understand that I am playing on ancient and hard-wired biological pathways in the human mind that determine what is healthy and attractive.  My background in theatre also tells me a lot about the psychology of masks and how the face you put on creates the character you portray, and how that affects social interactions.  I don’t wear makeup every day (frankly, I’m lazy, and I don’t like cleaning it off), but I don’t look down on those who do.  It’s a personal choice, like wearing t-shirts and jeans as opposed to dress slacks and blouses.

In the end, people (and especially women) need to just stop finding ways of dividing ourselves, and instead focus on what we have in common.  And when we’re voting on which blogger should get a scholarship, we shouldn’t dismiss any blog solely because of its subject matter: it’s the actual content, the writing style, and the understanding of the subject matter that should be on the table here.  Deciding that a blog about makeup is automatically inferior to a blog about biology (or vice-versa) is judging a book by its cover.  And considering that all of us, whether we wear makeup or not, would prefer to be judged on who we are as opposed to how we look — well, I guess the end of that statement is kind of obvious.