Ladyrebecca's Musings and Ramblings

The Increasingly Political Thoughts of Rebecca (Becky) Walker

Michelle Obama and the Balancing Act December 29, 2009

This lengthy post was my second essay for Women’s Studies. Here it is:

Katherine Lewis, writing for America.gov, reports that one of Michelle Obama’s goals as First Lady is to help women find the balance between working, mothering, and living (2009). Finding such a balance is something Michelle has extensive experience in. Liza Mundy, author of the biography Michelle, notes that not only did she manage to balance career, marriage, and childrearing, she was also able to balance being the wife of an up-an-coming politician with the “dinner-together-every-night” kind of family she desired (2008. p. 129). However, her balancing acts are under new scrutiny and the rules of the game have changed a bit since she began her move from, as she describes herself, “that little girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago” (quoted in Michelle by Liza Mundy, 2008, p. 173).

When her husband, Barack, decided to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, balance took on a whole new meaning and importance to Michelle. Never one to stand aside when she felt something needed to be done, Michelle made stump speeches and hosted fund-raisers. She gave interviews and appeared on talk shows. As a potential First Lady, Michelle was catapulted along with her husband into the spotlight.

She faced then and continues to face issues that require poise, grace and tremendous amounts of balance in order to navigate through successfully. As the spouse of a politician, success can be defined as not decreasing constituent support for one’s spouse. One of the first tightrope walks Michelle faced was the backlash of her oft repeated statement made on February 18, 2008: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country…” With that one sentence, taken from the middle of a speech about how people are getting involved and are working to make the changes they want to see, Mrs. Obama lit the news sources and bloggers alike on fire as they tore into the presidential candidate’s wife. Webblogger Mickey Kaus, writing for Slate, an online magazine, says “She sure seems to have a non-trivial chip on her shoulder” (2008) and Jim Geraghty, a blogger for National Review called the remark “strikingly ungracious” (2008). Mark Steyn, also writing for National Review accused her of “narcissism and self-absorption” in the same issue that featured a picture of a scowling Michelle with the title “Mrs. Grievance” (2008, April 21, http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MjY4MjQ4MWFjYWUzN2Q2YzAwY2ZlZTRiMTJjY2I0MzE). She was called, “unpatriotic, racist and downright shameful” by blog commenters. (http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=132×4658171) Of course Barack defended her, explaining that her statement was referring to America politically and Michelle clarified along the same lines, saying in an interview with Good Housekeeping: “It’s a mischaracterization that has nothing to do with the intended statement” (2008). But because of the focus the Obama/Biden campaign made on “Change,” Michelle and her husband could not proclaim too loudly of how proud they were of America because of the inability of so many to understand the difference between love and pride. Arthur Brazier clearly expresses the difference:

“I was drafted in the army in World War II. When I got my notice, I didn’t burn my notice or go to Canada, because I love my country. I went to war, but in my uniform I was in a segregated army, totally and completely segregated. And in my uniform, when I was training in the South, I had to ride in the back of the bus. If I wanted to drink water from a drinking fountain, I had to drink from a fountain that said ‘Colored.’ It was greatly humiliating. But I loved my country. I was awarded two bronze stars. I still loved my country. But I wasn’t proud of it. There’s a difference.” (cited in Mundy, 2008, p. 189)

Michelle must find a way to balance loving her country and being proud of America for what it has allowed her and Barack to accomplish alongside seeing clearly the problems in the nation in order to find solutions to them.

Another example of a balancing act she must perform is that of race relations. Michelle Obama is black. She is married to the first African-American president of the United States of America. She is the first First Lady to be a direct descendant of slaves. She is the first African-American First Lady. The African-American community looks up to her as a role model for their daughters and to her husband as a role model for their sons. Katherine Lewis writes “For African-American women to be able to say to their sons, ‘This is an example of a relationship,’ is very valuable” (2009, America.gov). While the Obama’s are role models for all Americans, regardless of race, their contribution to African-Americans is not something that can be discounted. Lewis writes, “[Michelle]’s in a good position to be a positive image for American society and also for black America.” Yet, Michelle must balance the knowledge of the barriers she has broken for the African-American community with the knowledge that focusing too much on race may alienate non-African-American constituents. Worse yet, if she focuses too much on what an accomplishment it is for an African-American to attain the highest office in the land, focuses too much on how hard it is for African-Americans to get a fair shake, focuses too much on how racism is still alive and well in the United States, or focuses too much on white privilege and black oppression, she will be lambasted as “anti-white,” “racist,” and even, “a terrorist.”

Michelle also finds herself balancing the gravity of the issues she cares about (universal health care, soldiers in combat, education opportunities for all children, the plight of the poor, to name a few) with the frivolity the media (and the audiences who pay for it) seem obsessed with. The Money Times (Dec. 12, 2009) reports that Barbara Walters listed Michelle Obama as her most fascinating person of 2009. When Walters interviewed Michelle, did she ask her about her journey from segregated Chicago to two Ivy League schools? Did she ask her about the community work Michelle engaged in? No. Instead, Barbara asked her about her famously “toned arms.” She asked about Michelle’s workout routine. Michelle balances this focus on her body with a push for healthier eating habits and regular exercise. While it may seem frivolous to appear on the cover of Vogue, Michelle being touted as a beauty ideal or a fashion icon is a huge benefit to African-American women. Writer Allison Samuels said it best in her article “What Michelle Means to Us.” “Who and what is beautiful has long been a source of pain, anger, and frustration in the African-American community. In too many cases, beauty for black women…has meant fair skin, “good hair” and dainty facial features.” Samuels quotes a California mail carrier as saying, “It’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn’t happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that—my little girl needs to see it.”

Ruben, Fitts, and Becker (2003) wrote about the need for realistic “beauty ideals” for African-American women in their essay, “Body Ethics and Aesthetics Among African America and Latina Women” (Shaw & Lee 2009). “…Western mainstream media” creates an image of beauty that is a white, thin, with delicate facial features, and “good hair,” that is, not “nappy hair” (p. 262). While there are more African-American women in the media now than previously, “they typically reinscribe prevailing stereotypes by featuring women with lighter skin and “Anglo” features to the exclusion of other women.” (p. 256).

Michelle’s balancing abilities also come into play when dealing with issues of gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. Much of Michelle’s job during the nominating campaign, when speaking to professional women, was to show them that Barack had their interests at heart as much as his opponent, Hillary Clinton did. Michelle drew upon her own experiences as a college graduate and career woman and, wrote in U.S. World News Report, “As first lady, I’d take [working women’s] stories back to Washington to make sure that the people who run our country know how their policies touch their constituents’ lives” (2008, Oct. 17). One of the issues Michelle brings up is the inequality between the sexes in the job market. Michelle writes, “We’ve talked to mothers whose salaries can’t cover the cost of groceries—but if they take a second job, they can’t afford the additional cost of child care. More than 22 million working women don’t have paid sick days. Millions of women are doing the same jobs as men—but they’re earning less” (Oct. 17, 2008). Michelle Cottle reports, “In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Michelle [Obama] observed: ‘What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, god is in there somewhere, but me is first…And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy.’…Looked at one way Michelle was issuing a pointed call for female self-empowerment…For all the talk about this being a partnership of equals, the domestic roles Michelle and Barack have assumed are, in many ways, strikingly stereotypical.” (The New Republic, March 26, 2008)

Michelle has the title First Lady because of the position her husband is in. Her role in society is defined by her husband’s role. She has put her career on hold to provide the support her husband needs in order to succeed. However, if she were to address gender roles as such and were to decry her current traditional role, she may very well alienate the many constituents who believe in traditional roles for men and women. She must balance the fact that she is in a position to affect positive change for women in nontraditional roles with the fact that she is in such a position because she is in a traditional role herself.

Michelle’s ability to balance seemingly incompatible ideals comes into sharp focus when looking into her stance on social programs. Michelle Obama’s story is one of personal responsibility, hard work, and opportunities, both fought for and taken, equalling success. This aspect of Michelle appeals to the Conservative/Right wing constituents of the country. Her boot-strap story is just that: a story of someone who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Or is it? Hers may appear to be a bootstrap story but if she were pulled up by bootstraps, she wasn’t the only one pulling. Michelle recognizes the precarious nature of her rise to success and is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is afforded the breaks she was and not everyone is in a position to capitalize on the breaks that come their way. Mundy writes, “[Barack] was touched” during their courtship, “by what he saw as the occasional hint of vulnerability, the sense that her good fortune could vanish with one misstep, ‘as if, deep inside, she new how fragile things really were’” (2008, p. 96).

One of her greatest motivators to work hard in everything she did, was the work ethic instilled upon her by her hard-working, self-reliant father, Fraser Robinson (Mundy, 2008). Lexington, writing for the Economist, reports that “More than 60% of black children these days are brought up without a father” (2009, p. 38), and aside from “The Cosby Show,” “there are still woefully few public examples of solid, stable black marriages” (Samuels, 2008). Because of how much respect Michelle had for her dad, Mundy writes, she was very picky about the men she dated (2008). Had she not held out for as good a man as her father had been and had she not had her father’s work ethic, Michelle’s story may have gone a completely different direction.

Fraser Robinson worked for the city, a respectable job for an African American in the 1950’s, writes Mundy. A job with the city was coveted as it offered security and decent insulation from the turmoil of a collapsing blue collar job market. Many African-American’s did not have access to city jobs and the privilege of such a job was paramount to the Robinson’s success.

Michelle was entering middle school as the city was making inroads to deal with the heavy segregation of its school system. One of their solutions was magnet schools. Michelle applied and was accepted and it was there, in the exception to the rule, that she received an accelerated, multicultural education that equipped her to succeed in the two Ivy colleges she attended. Without that opportunity, her college choices, her success in the college environment, and her career options after graduation might have looked completely different.

It is these stereotypes, ideals, contradictions, and priorities that Michelle must balance if she is to be successful. She can not be “too” angry about racism, the plight of the poor, or the frivolity of the media without being labeled “an angry black woman.” She can not ignore racism, the plight of the poor, or the frivolity of the media without denying who she is, where she comes from, and the issues at stake. She can not be “too” black without being labeled as a “black elitist” nor can she be “too” white without being labeled a traitor. She can not promote the bootstrap myth without trivializing the situation of the poor and placing blame upon those in poverty. She can not deny that there is an element of personal responsibility in her own story of success. She loves her children and wants them to have the best life possible, including the best president possible. She loves her husband and wants him to be as successful as possible. These loves require her to make personal sacrifices that may not be seen as demonstrating “equality.”

Michelle, in fighting stereotype and overcoming hurdles, has reached a position where she must simultaneously be a stay-at-home mom and advocate feminist ideals; preach the qualities of “bootstrapping” but avoid victim blaming; be a role model for African Americans while not alienating white citizens; and try to steer attention towards important, lasting issues without offending those fascinated by her “style.” Our nation’s 46th First Lady has her work cut out for her but if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Michelle.

References

Cottle, M. (2008, March 26). Wife lessons: Why Michelle Obama is no Hillary Clinton. The New Republic, 23,24.

Geraghty, J. (2008, February 19). Comparing John McCain and Michelle Obama. National Review Online: Campaign Spot. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from http://campaignspot.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MDQxMjVmZDFlMGU5OGFiNTYwN2I5MDk0MDY2Zjk5NWY=

Good Housekeeping. (2008, November). A conversation with Michelle Obama. Good Housekeeping, 143-218, 5 p.

Kaus, M. (2008, February 18). Is that an s-chip on your shoulder or are you just glad to see me?. Slate. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from http://www.slate.com/id/2184672/#mchip

Lewis, K. (2009, July 9). Michelle Obama presents the modern image for black women. America.gov. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from http://www.america.gov/st/econ-english/2009/January/20090126163119BErehelleK0.5277063.html

Lexington, (2009, March 21). The other Obama. The Economist, 38.

Money Times, The. (2009, December 10). Michelle Obama is Walters’ ‘secret’ most fascinating person. The Money Times. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from http://www.themoneytimes.com/featured/20091210/michelle-obama-walters-secret-most-fascinating-person-id-10937744.html

Mundy, L. (2008). Michelle. New York, NY; Simon & Schuster.

Obama, M. (2008, October 17). Michelle Obama: As Barack’s first lady, I would work to help working families and military families. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from http://www.usnews.com/articles/opinion/2008/10/17/michelle-obama-as-baracks-first-lady-i-would-work-to-help-working-families-and-military-families.html

Ruben, L., Fitts, M., & Becker, A. (2009). Body ethics and aesthetics among African American and Latina women. In S. Shaw & J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (4th ed.). (pp. 255-266). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Samuels, A. (2008, November 22). What Michelle means to us. Newsweek. Retrieved on December 10, 2009, from http://www.newsweek.com/id/170383

Steyn, M. (2008, March 21). Mrs. Obama’s America. National Review, 34.

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My, oh my, how times have changed December 22, 2009

Ignorance...it's so much easier.

Prior to opening Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, I had a fairly narrow view of feminism and the many different issues the broad umbrella of “feminism” entails. All the info I had on feminism came from Hollywood, shock jocks, overheard conversations, and 20 years worth of indoctrination into the conservative Christian tradition. Though I had largely rejected my religious upbringing and had begun to question many of the opinions which I’d thought were fact, many remained, simply because they were unexamined. The readings from Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions have caused me to examine my views of feminism, the role of women in society, the patriarchy, activism, and cosmetic surgery. Two readings in particular have proven catalytic in broadening my mind; Feminist Politcs, written by bell hooks, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, by Amy Bloom.

In Feminist Politics, hooks provided me with a definition of feminism I couldn’t not support (ironically, it was also the first definition I’d heard, despite having a strong, albeit ignorant, opinion about feminism): “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (2000, p. 40). Hooks went on to address why this is not a commonly understood and accepted definition of feminism and I had my eyes opened again. I was not a big believer in the “patriarchy”— the idea of a group of men in expensive suits, sitting around a cigar-smoke-filled room, conspiring to keep women oppressed seemed preposterous. With a simple phrase, “[Most people’s] misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media” (p. 40), I realized that it didn’t take a conspiracy of peers to oppress a group of people.

The term “radical feminist” was a cause for concern to me before hooks explained the difference between “reformist feminism” and “radical feminism.” Reformists want, primarily, “equality with men in the workforce” while the “original radical foundations of contemporary feminism…called for reform as well as overall restructuring of society so that our nation would be fundamentally anti-sexist” (2000, p. 41). Reforming our current, sexist society is not enough. Gaining equality in one area (such as equal-pay-for-equal-work), is not enough to end (or at least push back) all the ‘ism’s that oppress millions every day.

The second reading that cataclysmically altered my point of view was written by Amy Bloom. In Hermaphrodites with Attitude, Bloom writes that infants born with “ambiguous genitalia” are more common than those born with cystic fibrosis, about two thousand times a year in the United States alone. (2002, p. 244)

I myself am not a hermaphrodite, nor do I know anyone who is (that I am aware of). Prior to this reading, I had done no research about the subject whatsoever. And yet, I had an opinion about hermaphrodites and people I considered “gender confused.” My thought was naively, “Whatever genitals are most prominent, that’s what you are. Just be that.” Very few hermaphrodites are true 50/50 splits so this seemed an easy judgment to make.

This opinion was challenged upon my reading about the “corrective” procedures, which, “if necessary” involve “some enlargement of the vaginal cavity by metal dilators, inserted by the parents daily for six months….Monthly dilation of the seven-or eight-year old continues into adolescence to prevent the narrowing or closure of the vaginal cavity” (p. 244). Further challenges arose when reading about the mentality of those performing such procedures. Bloom quotes a doctor as writing, “After stillbirth, genital anomaly is the most serious problem with a baby, as it threatens the whole fabric of personality and life of the person.” One must wonder how much more a baby’s personality will be shaped by having non-consensual genital surgery and by the postoperative “dilation” in order to make her vagina “normal” than by having a “genital anomaly.” Bloom quotes Dr. Richard Hurwitz, in the instructional video “Surgical Reconstruction of Ambiguous Genitalia in Female Children” as saying, “The finding of ambiguous genitalia in the newborn is a medical and social emergency.” There is a common understanding among doctors and surgeons that a boy can not have a fulfilling life with a small penis and a girl can not have a fulfilling life with a large clitoris and therefore, “corrective” surgery must be performed as soon as possible. These same doctors believe that parents are incapable of truly loving a child whose genitals do not conform to the “normal” standard of genital conformation. The American College of Surgeons training video on how to treat female genital abnormality makes clear that they believe it highly important to appear normal while making no mention of functionality or feeling. (Bloom, 2002, p. 248)

My ignorant opinion that one should just “be what they are” was challenged and ultimately destroyed upon reading about Klinefelter’s syndrome, AIS, PAIS, and CAH, all of which result in fairly “normal” looking genitals but with various hormonal or chromosomal abnormalities which result in varying degrees of natural variations, such as a man developing small breasts but not the typically “male” traits such as a hairy chest, deep voice, and heavier musculature.

This essay also reaffirmed to me the dangers of homophobia. Dr. Philip Gruppuso (quoted in Bloom, 2002), speaking on the treatment of infant hermaphrodites said:

“…in the history of treating these kids, there is an element of homophobia…If you look back at the standard texts of the fifties and sixties, the underlying concern was that people who were ‘really’ male but looked female would want to have sex with males, and the same for females who appeared male. Homosexual sex was the underlying fear.” (p. 247)

While understanding that homophobia was dangerous and damaging to adults, I had not realized the extent to which the irrational fear of consenting adults having relations with other consenting adults of the same sex was causing harm upon the most innocent and defenseless people in our midst.

I know that I have many more ignorant and judgment views remaining to be examined, but due to the writings of bell and Bloom, there are at least some which are no longer mucking around in my brain.

References

Bloom, A. (2002) Hermaphrodites with attitude. In S. Shaw, J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions. (2009). (pp. 244-249). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist politics: Where we stand. In S. Shaw, J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions. (2009). (pp. 40-42). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

 

How Feminism Has Effected Me…so far. December 19, 2009

Rebecca Watson - Third Wave feminist

I love talking politics and government but I hate being ill-informed and ignorant (largely because I spent the first two decades of my life ignorant and opinionated before having a change of heart). My desire to not be ignorant is what led me to major in Political Science. I wanted to be able to speak with surety about the things that were going on in the political theaters of the U.S. and around the world. But my quest for knowledge was just that…a quest for nothing more than knowledge. I just wanted to be able to talk about politics. I didn’t want to do politics. One of the reasons for this was that I didn’t recognize a need for change. I, as a white female, was adequately represented by my elected leaders and feminism was done. I believed in, as what Deborah Seigel called, “the trendy notion that we are living in a ‘post-feminist’ era” (The Movement That Has No Name, 2007, p. 34). Seigel’s essay and Patricia Hill Collins’s Toward a New Vision were instrumental in changing that misconception.

In my studies of politics, I’ve learned that representation is key to achieving a group’s goals. Upon reading The Movement That Has No Name, I realized that feminism was not done and there was still much work to be done before the goals of feminism (equality for all and an end to sexism) could be said to be realized. Siegel writes, “Polls proclaimed that 22 million unmarried women did not vote in the 2000 presidential election” (p. 33). Seigel writes that

Sarah Margaret Fuller - First Wave feminist

younger women are highly involved volunteers, grassroots organizers, and activists. These women are not voting, not because they don’t care, but because they “disillusioned” (p. 36). This disillusionment exists because in a world where the cost of running for office is in the millions of dollars–$3 million for a seat in the House and over $21 million for a Senatorial seat (projected costs for 2010), and over $300 million spent on President Obama’s campaign (as reported by Thomas E. Patterson in American Democracy, 2008)–women only own “1 percent of the world’s assets” (Siegel, p. 35). Is it any wonder, then, that women only make up about 16.4% of American Congressmen? Only “20 percent of full professors” are women as are only “17 percent of partners in law firms…Only 10 Fortune 500 CEOs are women” (p. 34).

“The low turnout among young female voters during the 2004 election doesn’t mean that all women under 35 are apathetic but rather, perhaps, that many are turned off and disillusioned by politicians who fail to take on their issues” (Siegel, p. 36), for without the resources that men have, getting one of their own in a position of power has proven extremely difficult.

As I finished reading Siegel’s work, I began thinking of ways to organize my peers, give them a movement they can stand behind and can support them. Siegel believes a principle cause of women thinking their “personal” problem is not political is the lack of just such a movement to support them (2007). I was left with the question, “How does one go about doing such a thing?”

Catherine MacKinnon - Second Wave feminist

Patricia Hill Collins’s Toward a New Vision gave me some of the answers I was looking for. She writes, “[C]hange starts with self, and relationships that we have with those around us must always be the primary site for social change (1993, p. 76). It is easy for me to forget how central personal relationships are. Before I met my good friend Alex, I gave little thought to the unique struggles of the partially disabled. Until my atheist husband joined the Air Force, I had given no thought to how oppressively Christian the military can be. Until I begin to share what I have learned and experienced, many around me may remain ignorant of the issues facing women today.

Collins also urges us away from “additive analyses of oppression,” (p. 76) as such is based on either/or thinking. Collins points out some of the “dichotomous” thinking with, “Black/white, man/woman, thought/feeling…” (p. 77). I add to that list other dichotomies that plague, not just the study of oppression, but the study of politics and government as well: good/evil, right/wrong, Left/Right, pro-life/pro-choice, pro-gun-rights/pro-gun-control, against war/patriotic. The list of divisions goes on and one. Dichotomies such as these tear people apart and create divides where none needs to be because dichotomous thinking means that only one side can be right and that side is 100% right. Therefore the other side (any side that isn’t right) is 100% wrong. The pro-life side does not see the pro-choice side as supporting choice. They see them as anti-life. The pro-choice side does not see

Becky Walker - feminist

the pro-life side as pro-life; they see them as anti-choice and pro-oppression. The pro-gun control does not see the pro-gun-rights side as pro-Constitution or pro-self-defense. They see them as pro-murder and mayhem. The pro-gun-rights side does not see the pro-gun-control side as pro-safety and anti-violent-crime. They see them as anti-Constitution and anti-family. Each side vilifies the other while elevating themselves to sainthood. Such thinking will ultimately destroy much more than it builds.

While my passion remains government and politics, feminism has “lit a fire” under me, so to say. Previously, my goal had simply been to understand politics, to be able to intelligently discuss government systems without embarrassing myself, and perhaps, to write the odd free-lance article. Now, armed with the knowledge that, 1. my voice, as a woman, is less heard than men’s voices; 2. There is great need for a cohesive feminist movement that young women can stand behind and be supported by; 3. Such an organizations will come about through personal relationships; 4. My fight to end dichotomous thinking in my own life is a good start but I must also spread it through those I’m in relationship with, I think perhaps I can and should do more with my education than just “have an education.” I must constantly challenge myself to remember these points and fight for the change I wish to see least I fall again into the ranks of the ill-informed, ignorant, and ultimately, powerless.

References

Collins, P. H. (1993). Toward a new vision. In S. Shaw, J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions.(2009). (pp. 76-84). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Patterson, T. E. (2009). The American democracy. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Siegel, D. (2007). The movement that had no name. In S. Shaw, J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions. (2009). (pp. 31-39). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

 

Women’s Studies Final and a good law December 18, 2009

YEAH! I am done with my Women’s Studies class! Hurray!

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed learning about feminism needed to learn about feminism. It was NOT especially enjoyable. I spent yesterday morning in tears as I read about some of the heartbreaking stories that lead Margaret Sanger to found Planned Parenthood. (A mother of three died following an illegal abortion…after she had BEGGED the doctor and Sanger, her nurse, to tell her how to keep from getting pregnant again. The doctor’s answer? “Tell Jake [the woman’s husband] to sleep on the roof.” Great answer, doc.) And yes, I am somewhat familiar with her racists views…that doesn’t change the fact that she was unable to help this woman because of a “gag” rule. I read about a woman in Ethiopia who lived for two years in a shack, isolated and alone, because of a obstetrical fissure (a tear between the vagina and bladder and/or rectum, causing the constant leakage of urine and feces). Because of higher quality of obstetrical services in the western world (simply better health as well), obstetrical fissure is almost unheard of and is insanely easy to fix if it does occur. This woman, abandoned by her husband, starving and dehydrated (as eating and drinking caused increased leaking), lived for two years curled into the fetal position, wishing she could die. Her parents finally sold all of their farm animals (I wonder how they will make a living now) to pay for her surgery. It was less than $500.

And as I read that, I couldn’t help but remember all the missionaries to Africa I had listened to. I remembered hearing of how they needed Jesus. Of how they needed to be freed from their barbaric religions. And I remembered the sometimes overflowing offering bowl and I couldn’t help but wonder how much more good it would have done to send doctors instead of missionaries? Even when I was a Christian, I could not make peace with the idea of preaching the gospel before taking care of people’s physical needs. *sigh*

Daily Mail photo of Twiggy and Twiggy

One of the problems I had during this class on feminism was the question of “so what?” So women (and many other sub-groups) are still being marginalized. What are we supposed to do about it? Make legislation that makes being a jerk illegal? That’s no better than legislating morality in the bedroom. Then today, just after returning from my final, I saw this article on Olay’s blatant false advertising. This is good legislation. Olay is LYING! They are showing a picture, quoting the woman in the picture as saying, “This product made me look like this” when in fact Photoshop made her look like that. That’s called a LIE and the British Parliament called them on it. Good for them. I wonder what the chances are of having a similar law passed in the U.S.?

There, Heidi, I said something positive about an article. 🙂

 

Stephenie Meyer is an anti-feminist, no-talent-hack. November 17, 2009

*This post contains spoilers*

Bella Swan stars in four anti-feminist novels, the Twilight series. She and the other main characters are gender stereotyped to a fault. Abusive misogyny and an embracement of lookism run rampant throughout the 500 pages of the first novel, Twilight, and her experiences with teen romance and/or love are truly a masterpiece on how to have an unhealthy relationship.

Her story is simple enough. Bella is an average teenage girl. She moves to Forks, Washington during her junior year of high school to live with her dad after her mom remarries a traveling baseball player. Bella gets situated at school where she meets Edward Cullen, a disturbingly beautiful and strange boy. He is initially hostile but warms up to her after a while, though his moods swing wildly between tender care and open aggression. In the first half of the story, he saves her life twice, both times by exhibiting extraordinary abilities—super human speed and strength and apparent clairvoyance.

After hearing an ancient Quileute legend about a group of “cold ones” who drank animal blood instead of human blood and went by the name of Cullen, Bella realizes that her gorgeous hero is a vampire. Instead of deterring her from pursuing a relationship with Edward, Bella realizes that nothing, not even the threat of death, could make her life worth living if Edward weren’t in it, and yet the reader is left wondering what exactly it is about Edward that Bella finds so captivating beyond his good looks. Stereotypical teen infatuation and simple physical lust seem to be about it.

Edward, despite repeatedly telling Bella he’s no good for her, is unable to stay away. He find the scent of her blood so alluring that it is a constant temptation to kill her. When she responds to his kisses with equal or greater passion, he draws away least he be overcome with temptation and kill her. Despite this obstacle, the two quickly fall in love and in short order, are professing their undying (?) love for each other.

When a conventional vampire sets his sights on ending Bella’s life, Edward and the entire Cullen family spring into action. Bella is whisked off to safety with Edward’s “sister” and her husband, while Edward, his brother, and their nearly four hundred year old father set a trap for the hunter. The hunter is able to trick Bella into leaving the relative safety of Alice and Jasper’s care. Bella meets the hunter in an abandoned dance studio (claiming he has her mom held hostage) and she is almost killed before Edward and company show up to save the day.

She returns home with a well fabricated cover story and the stage is set for them to live happily ever after…provided Edward is willing to turn her into a vampire so she can live forever with him.

The story is simple enough. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl (i.e. damsel) is in distress. Boy (i.e. knight in shining armor) comes to the rescue. Happily ever after.

Unfortunately, for readers, there is a dark undercurrent that flows throughout Twilight. Earlier, I wrote that Bella was “an average teenage girl.” I say “average” because there is nothing to set her apart. She is not especially smart or dumb. She is not particularly ugly or beautiful. She has no particular talents or shortcomings (aside from being chronically clumsy). Bella’s physical appearance is not described, aside from making note that she is about 5’4” and weighs about 110 pounds. In fact, Stephenie Meyer, the author of Twilight, purposefully wrote Bella as a mostly undefined character so that, as she said on her website, “the reader could more easily step into [Bella’s] shoes” (www.stepheniemeyer.com). Meyer’s intent, then, was for the reader to put themselves into Bella’s place, which is understandable. I think most writers want their readers to be able to do the same. What is insidious is that, after carefully not defining a character so the reader is more easily able to insert herself into the story, Meyer’s main characters unapologetically promote traditional gender roles, blindly accept society’s unrealistic expectations of feminine beauty, and condone abusive and controlling behavior.

As Leonard Sax, writing for the Washington Post, said, “the girls are still girls, and the boys are traditional men…The lead male characters…are muscular and unwaveringly brave, while Bella and the other girls bake cookies, make supper for the men and hold all-female slumber parties.”

Traditional gender roles are assigned to the main characters from the book’s beginning. The story opens with Bella’s move into her father’s home. Within the first 48 hours, she has assigned herself to kitchen duty as her father can’t “cook much besides fried eggs and bacon” (p. 31). Bella comments on her father being aware of the upcoming school dance; “Only in a town this small would a father know when the high school dances were” (p. 81). Bella fully embraces the stereotype that social events such as dances are the realm of mothers (females) and not fathers (men) even though it would make perfect sense for her father, the chief of police, to be aware of an upcoming teen gathering. Bella makes this even clearer when she tells her dad about an upcoming shopping trip…which is the only time she spends with female friends outside of school, by the way. Bella, explaining that even though she isn’t attending the dance, she is helping her friends pick out dresses, thinks, “I wouldn’t have to explain this to a woman” (p. 149), embracing the idea that men could not possibly understand the female mind while a woman would naturally have an intrinsic understanding of all things “feminine.” Her father quickly embraces his own gender stereotype. As he turns back to the television, Meyer writes, “He seemed to realize that he was out of his depth with the girlie stuff” (p. 149).

Bella’s shopping trip with her friends supplies more gender stereotypes. Bella wanders into a dangerous neighborhood, distracted by the wallowing despair she finds herself in over not having seen Edward in two days. She runs into one group of people—four men. And naturally, these men are rapists who quickly scheme together to lead her away from the more populated areas so they can gang rape her. Edward shows up in the nick of time and saves the day, playing the part of the knight in shining armor to Bella’s damsel in distress who forgot her pepper spray at home.

Edward then takes Bella to a restaurant where he dazzles the, naturally straight, waitress with his unbelievable good looks. He asks Bella how she’s feeling, explaining, “I’m actually waiting for you to go into shock” (p. 168), because, naturally, that is the first reaction a female has to physical danger.

As mentioned earlier, Bella assigned herself kitchen duty for the duration of her stay in Forks. After school and obsessing over Edward, cooking is the only other activity the reader regularly sees Bella engage in. Bella listens to music in passing, reads a bit in passing (romances such as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice), but she has no other hobbies. She doesn’t paint or write. She doesn’t scrapbook or play an instrument. She doesn’t play video games or read voraciously. She doesn’t talk on the phone or play a sport. She thinks about Edward, talks to Edward, schemes to be with Edward, does some homework, and cooks for her dad, who is largely ungrateful as he watches sports on television and goes fishing on the weekends.

Besides promoting traditional gender roles, Bella fully embraces society’s current standard for female beauty. Bella observes Rosalie, one of Edward’s “sisters,” narrating, “The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room” (p. 18). Three paragraphs later, she remarks, regarding why she couldn’t look away from the five “siblings,” “…their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine” (p. 19). Bella believes that beauty is found in the glossy pages of mass media and nowhere else. There is no place for the beautiful, full figured woman, or the beautiful woman who looks like a human. Nor is there a place for the physically unattractive person who is still valuable. Bella’s only definition of beauty is that which conforms to the airbrushed models found in fashion magazines. Over seventy times, Bella mentions how beautiful the vampires are, in one way or another. Often it is in reference to Bella’s reaction to Edward’s “outrageous perfection” (p. 322). Other times it is within the context of Bella’s perceived plainness in comparison. Bella’s view of herself and her value has been completely and totally shaped by modern definitions of beauty, shallow as they are. As such, she sees herself as plain and therefore, without value.

As disturbing as Bella’s embracement of gender stereotypes and feminine beauty are, what is truly disturbing is her apology for abusive and controlling relationships. As Wendy Nosid of community.feministing.com said, “Bella’s choices are troubling, sure, but it’s the blatant romanticism of what she and [Edward do], excuses of him doing these things “out of love” and “to protect her” that makes her an anti-feminist figure” (http://community.feministing.com).

When asked if Bella is an anti-feminist heroine, Meyer, believing the accusation springs from Bella’s choice to marry early and carry a unexpected and life threatening pregnancy to term, argues that the accusations are invalid because Bella exercises her right to choose—the right to choose that feminists have fought for. Meyer says, “I never meant for her fictional choices to be a model for anyone else’s real life choices…she’s in a situation that none of us has ever been in, because she lives in a fantasy world.” (www.stepheniemeyer.com)

Meyer is correct. Bella does live in a fantasy world, filled with vampires and werewolves. However, if the vampire and werewolf aspects are removed from the story, you are left with a story which fits the description of an abusive relationship: “a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a[n]…intimate partner” (http://stanford.edu/group/svab/relationships.shtml). Stanford.edu gives sixteen “signs or ‘red flags’ to assist people in identifying a potentially abusive person” (http://www.stoprelationshipabuse.org/signs.html). Edward exhibits 13 of the 16.

Rachel Allen, a California mom, whose daughter defended Twilight with the “it’s just a fantasy” argument, writes, “[T]he thing is, the romance is not really the fantasy part. The romance is presented as the realistic part.” (www.canow.org)

And therein lays the danger. Feminists have fought for women to be free to make their own choices, even if those choices are not perhaps the wisest. Bella, however, is not really free to make choices. She has been so convinced that she is unappealing that when an attractive boy shows her the slightest attention, she swoons completely. She spends the entire first novel marveling that such an attractive boy would deem her worthy of attention, much less love. She is utterly convinced that she has so little value that she believes it will hurt her parents less to lose her completely than to experience even a modicum of danger. She spends most of the second book (2006, New Moon) in the depths of depression (for which she receives no professional help) because Edward has left her.

It is only when she becomes a vampire herself, gaining the beauty and strength she so admired in Edward, that she gains any value (in her own eyes). Instead of working hard and making choices to better herself, Bella waits for Edward to “rescue” her from her humanity (and its inherent plainness, clumsiness, and fragility) by turning her into vampire.

Again, while no reader can make that exact decision, ten minutes flipping through a stack of popular magazines or surfing through television channels will reveal many other “miracle” cures. From diet pills, hair care products, teeth whiteners to Wonder bras. The “cure” to all of a girl’s problems is just waiting, furthering the belief that something outside oneself can fix the inside.

It is not Bella’s decisions to choose a “traditional” role that makes her an anti-feminist heroine. Meyer’s is mistaken if she believes that is the root of the issue. The root of the issue is the glorifying and romanticizing of gender stereotypes, cookie cutter beauty standards, and abuse. These are what makes Bella Swan an anti-feminist heroine and Twilight inappropriate reading for…well, everyone.

References

Allen, Rachel. (2008, November 24). Feminist mom talks Twilight. California National Organization for Women. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.canow.org/canoworg/2008/11/feminist- mom-talks-twilight.html

Meyer, Stephanie. (2005). Twilight. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company

Meyer, Stephanie. (2009, August 28). Frequently asked questions: Breaking Dawn. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/bd_faq.html

Nosid, Wendy. (2008, September 20). Stephenie Meyer side-steps anti-feminist allegations. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://community.feministing.com/2008/09/stephanie-meyer-side-steps-ant.html

Sax, Leonard. (2008, August 17). “Twilight” sinks its teeth into feminism. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 6, 2009,, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/15/AR2008081503099.html

 

After all that, I found this video and it’s just too perfect to not share. Enjoy!


 

Women’s Studies: What is it? October 17, 2009

feminism“What is women’s studies?” you ask.

In short, women’s studies is the study of women – their lives, their works, their struggles, their accomplishments, their desires and fears, their future. In length, it’s much, much more – at least for me. Women’s Studies is the rejection of eighteen years worth of indoctrination. It is the shedding of a decade of willful ignorance.

I was raised believing that a women’s place was in the home. No, my parents would never have said, “A women should be in the kitchen bare foot and pregnant” but their disdain for working moms and feminists was clear. I was also raised in a Christian home where the man was head and the woman was submissive. “This models the church’s submission to Christ and to act any other way is a sin,” I was taught. Women were not allowed to preach or even lead prayer in church, teach to a co-ed group nor have any say in adult leadership (women were free to teach and lead male children). My exposure to feminism was through my Christian school, Focus on the Family, and people like Rush Limbaugh. Needless to say, my views were really skewed.

Even though I had a negative view of feminism, I couldn’t have given a definition if I’d been asked but I’d certainly not have guessed it to be anything like the one bell hooks gives in Feminist Politics: “[F]eminism is a movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation, and oppression.” If you had told me that was feminism in a nutshell I would have agreed wholeheartedly. But I didn’t know that definition (nor any other) and, as far as I’d been taught, there was no need for feminism any longer. Women had been “given” the vote, we’d complained enough that we’d been allowed into previously all-male schools and careers and now all was equal and fair. There was nothing left for feminism to do.

Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’ essay, A Day Without Feminism, revealed to me how wrong that line of think is. No child care? I stay at home with my daughter but I can’t imagine a world where there is no other option. I was appalled to find out that the National Honor Society will rescind a girl’s membership if she gets pregnant. (What happens to a boy if he fathers a child?) The Pill’s side effects were horrifying. The double standard of curfews for college women but not for men made me furious. I was fascinated by the fact that women weren’t the only disregarded ones. Baumgardner and Richards write, “The absence of women’s history, black history, Chicano studies, Asian-American history, queer studies, and Native American history from college curricula implies that they are not worth studying” (A Day Without Feminism, in Women’s Voices Feminist Visions. 2009). I was shocked by what they said about newspaper want ads being divided into “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.” The restrictions placed on a married woman’s ability to secure financial services was mind-blowing.

By the end of the article I was furious. Furious that my mom had never talked to me about this. Furious at myself for never questioning the status-quo. Furious at society for making this information so easy to hide. Furious at the universe for being indifferent. Furious at the fact that change happens when people make it happen and those people are people like me.

Then I got scared. I realized then what Women’s Studies meant to me. Women’s Studies was going to be my own personal revolution. My world was shifting and I didn’t know what was going to happen and I didn’t know how it was going to look when it was done and I didn’t know if I was ready but more than anything, I knew that this was the right road. I knew that hiding from the truth was not the answer. I knew that facing this thing head on was the only way to be true to myself and all that I hold dear.

Women’s Studies is the study of women – their lives, their works, their struggles, their accomplishments, their desires and fears, their future. I am a woman and therefore, Women’s Studies is the study of me – my life, my work, my struggles, my accomplishments, my desires and fears, my future.

 

Girl Scouts October 15, 2009

My daughter joined the Girls Scouts this last week. Most would not consider this that noteworthy. After all, 3.4 million girls and women are members of this “world’s preeminent organization dedicated solely to girls.” Over 50 million have passed through the ranks of the Girl Scouts. They were one of the leading organization on desegregation. They supported the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by growing victory gardens, operating bicycle courier services, and more.  Prominent women such as, Barbara and Laura Bush, Tipper Gore, and actress Debbie Reynolds have been involved in the Girl Scouts. Their website claims: “In partnership with committed adult volunteers, girls develop qualities that will serve them all their lives, like leadership, strong values, social conscience, and conviction about their own potential and self-worth.”

What’s not to like, right?

Until I sat down last week and did some research, the only thing I knew about Girl Scouts was what I had “learned” growing up in a Conservative Christian home. And that was that the Girl Scouts were evil. They were partnered with Planned Parenthood, encouraged teen sex, promoted abortion and lesbianism and were all commies. Of course none of this is true nor was it taught to me outright. I can’t honestly remember having any conversations with anyone about the Girl Scouts and yet, I had these impressions.

It is always strange to question things you’ve grown up with, beliefs so deeply ingrained you don’t even realize they are there until you are blindsided by it. And I was completely blind-sided. When Jayme invited Jael to Girl Scouts my first reaction was to smile and nod and get away from this psycho as quickly as possible. Obviously she was evil and would work to corrupt my daughter if she had access.

And then I realized, wait a minute. What do I really even know about the Girl Scouts? … They sell cookies.

That was it.

They sell cookies.

That’s what I knew about the Girl Scouts, all nicely summarized in one sentence. They. Sell. Cookies. More research was needed and that’s what we did. We started with “What’s the big controversy regarding the Girl Scouts?”

Shirley Dobson says: “Jim [Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family] is also determined to protect children from indoctrination by “politically correct” ideas that are promoted by…homosexual activists who want to manipulate young minds …within the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.”

James Dobson himself said, in a 2002 letter to his followers, “[indoctrination] is what is behind the massive effort to install homosexuals and their influence into the Boy Scouts organization. The Girls Scouts have already been invaded, and now, according to one report, a third of Girl Scout leaders are lesbians.” This quote is followed by a little number 20 which, if you click on it, takes you to the reference which is one Kathryn Jean Lopez’s article, “The Cookie Crumbles” from National Review, 23 October 2000, p. 30.

Alrighty. Let’s find this report. Some time on UMUC’s library database and I’ve got it. Culture Watch is the column (which I think is an opinion column…of course, I think that National Review is largely an opinion publication anyway), Kathryn Lopez is the author and here’s what she had to say:

The Girl Scouts’ leaders hope to make their youthful charges the shock troops of an ongoing feminist revolution. It’s been a long slide…they dropped “loyalty” from their oath…in favor of “I will do my best to be honest and fair.”…[The Girl Scouts] executive director, Marsha Johnson Evans, has impeccable feminist credential: She had a 29-year career in the Navy, during which she earned the title of rear admiral, only the second woman ever to do so…she was the mother of the 12-12-5 affirmative-action policy, a mandate to make the Navy look more like America: 12 percent African-American, 12 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asain/Pacific.

Wow…I didn’t realize that being successful at your job gave you “impeccable feminist credential[s].” And shouldn’t we be proud of Evans for being only the second woman to become Rear Admiral? Isn’t that something to be proud of? I guess not.

Lopez goes on to say that the Girl Scouts advocate for sexual equality in sports (GOOD GOD! Girls playing sports! The horror!) and that the Girl Scout constitution has a “ringing endorsement of affirmative action in ‘recruitment, hiring, training, and promoting.’ Girl Scout moms are anti-gun…” Wow…I had no idea I was anti-gun. Huh. Who would have thought their mind control devices were so strong that with the signing of Jael’s registration form I became anti-gun.

In this same negative tone Lopez continues writing. She writes, regarding a Senior Scout resource book:

Some activities “you can do as a Girl Scout to address contemporary issues” include “organiz[ing] an even to make people aware of gender bias” or “help[ing] organize an Earth Day celebration.”…Girl Scouts can now earn the “Ms. Fix-It” badge for learning how to fix a leak, rewire an electrical appliance, or re-caulk a window, and the “Car Care” badge for checking fluids, filling tires to the proper pressure, and performing safety checks…Victimization is central to the Girl Scout worldview…

I’m confused. So, the Girl Scouts are bad for encouraging girls to learn how to take care of themselves and then they are bad for talking about victimization? Which way do you want it, Lopez? Oh…you just want to pretend that victimization just doesn’t happen. After all, we are in a post-feminism era with no further need of equality, right? Must be nice to be you.

Now Lopez brings out the big guns. Lesbianism. The Girl Scouts have them. She quotes from a book titled On My Honor: Lesbians Reflect on Their Scouting Experience. It is a collection of memoirs from lesbians who were in the Girl Scouts. Lopez writes, “Girl Scout staffers writing in the book claim that roughly one in three of the Girl Scouts’ paid professional staff is lesbian.”

And that’s it. That’s Dr. James Dobson’s “report.” Wow. A collection of memoirs, in which someone NOT speaking for the organization, claims that 1/3 of the paid professional staff is lesbian is a “report.” Reeeeeeaaaaaally? Also, “paid professional staff” and “Girl Scout leaders” are two VERY different things. When someone says “Girl Scout leaders” you think “troop leaders,” which are ALL volunteer, spend a lot of time with your kids and are NOT paid professionals. Holy. Freaking. Cow.

I’ve got other things to work on (like my first assignment in Women’s Studies…hmmm. Maybe Girl Scout people are raging feminists…).