Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Chick Lit, the Feminizing of Stupidity and Gendered Language

Most of the times, English is a gender-neutral language. Yes, it's true you can say 'chairman' or 'chairwoman', thus betraying your gendered-vision of the job market. But for most of the times, one cannot guess if the noun is feminine, masculine or neutral. Take French for instance: la femme ignorante/ l'homme ignorant. The epithet (adjective) changes with the gender of the noun - and in French, like in other Romance languages, the noun is always gendered.

So, when a man wrote the other day in one of these Romance languages: "I'm new here and I do not know the details of this problem, but I'm asking like a 'stupid' one", he used the feminine for the word stupid, and put it in between inverted commas, to emphasize the fact that it should be read in a connotative manner.

But what is the connotation here? That to ask stupid questions is always a female way of dealing with things? Most probably, yes...

The other day, someone else wrote to say he's reading "chick lit!" I was intrigued... what exactly makes literature 'chick'? Could it be because it is about poultry? Probably not... As I was pondering the 'depth of this comment' (*sarcastic tone*), I took out the newspapers and happened to come across an article about the 'feminization of the school curriculum', where 'poor boys' (*sarcasm, again*) are being forced to read those annoying Jane Austin books... Consequently, due to this 'outrageous discrimination' (*sarcasm, again), the boys' grades were going down the drain, so the professor replaced the 'chick lit' with books where the boys can read - in a manly fashion! - about the adventures of a young boy. Go, boys, go!

I wonder if people ever ponder the mangitude of such words, deeds and feelings. If they ever stop to ask themselves: why am I labeling this 'chick lit' or why is stupidity always bound to be a 'female' attribute?

Here's my biased two cents: in most cases, I suspect telling people that using such a language is derogatory, betraying a sexist and patriarchal vision of the world, will only bring a smile and maybe a polite acknowledgment: "Oh, but I didn't mean it in that way". Maybe you didn't, but then again, you did mean exactly in this way and maye not because you 'intended' it, but because that's the only language you're comfortable with, and you don't give it a second thought.
But you should.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Democracy and Ageism

The students are discontented with the election result. Most of the people who voted for communism are old people, but old people are dying and there are more young people voting now than before. So the result is definitely not true. It's not logical.

The story behind this comment can be found here. In a nutshell, the comment was made by a student in the Eastern European country of Moldova, where there is growing discontent among the youth against the results of elections. Sympathetic or not to the protesters, it is quite interesting to take a closer look at this argument:

  • Democracy: Exactly what is a democracy? Who should have a right to vote, and what happens in cases when there's a tie? The comment above is interesting in undermining the idea of democracy as the rule of the 'many' - when 'many' is no longer one group, but several, what constructs the difference between the voting groups and what legitimizes the rule of one over the others?

  • Ageism: just because a voter is older, so s/he may die soon, does this make hir less legitimate to vote? It is interesting how this comment frames the democratic argument within a discriminative discourse against age: those voters who voted for this party are old enough to die soon, but the country belongs to young people, and they would have voted for someone else. I am doubtful that indeed young people have (or would) all voted for one party. But it is interesting how age difference is framed here as an impediment to the realization of the democratic dream.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gender and Blogging

The Gender and Technology blog with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has posted an interesting note on Arab female bloggers:

And while there are certainly well-known female bloggers discussing issues unique to women, many female bloggers in the Arab world face a unique challenge: to speak out about women’s issues often means going against the grain of family and society.
Still, for those who do, blogging is a potentially liberating experience.

Yet, in spite of this, the post proposes that many Arab female bloggers are getting out of the bloggosphere, mainly because blogging is constructed as a 'masculine' (made me wonder what exactly is meant here by 'masculine' - is it a male practice, like in saying 'men are interested in politics'; or is it a practice shaped by particular values associated with masculinity, like in saying 'men are rational'?). A Libyan blogger adds a new layer of explanation: women who blogged were probably reprimanded by family and friends for doing this, so they either opted out of the bloggosphere or restricted their blogs 'by invitation only'.

There's one argument I often hear: that the bloggosphere - or the internet for that matter - is a safe space. As if the 'safety' is a feature of the space. But it is not. What makes a place safe is not its physical characteristics, but the people and social structures inhabiting it.

First, a blogger is never fully safe - the precise location of your averagely tech-skilled blogger is easy to pinpoint. Furthermore, should the blogger subscribe to the many various services that aggregate your digital traces, the blogger's identity may be inadvertently disclosed. Say you have a Facebook account to keep up with your friends. You list your blog there, thinking it's only them who have access to it. But you forgot to set your privacy settings - and a simple search by either name or blog may bring that info up. There are also things you cannot control: say a friend adds you to her blogroll, but instead of using your blog's name, she uses your real name.

But there's yet another way in which the blog is never fully safe: it has to do with the emotional involvement in building your digital life. In many cases, the comments people post may be supportive, pleasant and educational. Yet, in many other cases - and particularly in the case of posts about gender relations - the comments are stereotyped, destructive and even hateful. If you think you're safe from such comments just because nobody knows who you are, that they won't mean anything just because you're blogging from the comfort of your couch or bedroom, you've probably never blogged. The emotional toll such comments may take on you is almost never discussed by researchers. Maybe because it's deemed as a 'feminine' trait?

I think many of our biases in approaching blogging stem from the fact that we get blindsided by its so-called 'empowering potential'. We forget to ask ourselves exactly whom we want (or think of being) empowered and what are we missing because of this assumption. We also tend to think that blogs will collectively contribute to the advance of democratic, liberal and tolerant values. Again, we forget to question the assumption that if people have the means to express themselves, they will participate in the rational public sphere and reveal themselves as critical thinkers. This assumption is closely connected to that of 'understanding via information': let there be information, which will allegedly reveal the 'truth', and there will be mutual understanding, acceptance and ultimately a redress of oppression. Such assumptions are in great need of more deconstruction, particularly in the social construction of new communication technologies.

Photo credits: bohPhoto

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Those hairy feminists...

It seems that everything I'm getting angry about these days relates to gender issues.

The other day for instance, I got mad over a disgusting article in a newspaper in Eastern Europe talking about how feminists are stupid, have a mustache and grow chest hair?!? Do I need to say that the article in question was (allegedly) written by a woman?

Not that I buy into the 'sisterhood' thing, but I find it extremely dangerous that in a country where gender equality was an official state policy, things can change so dramatically against women once equality is no longer publicly heralded (there still are equality of opportunity policies, but nobody - politicians included - truly support it publicly). What does this say about the real mental pictures people hold about 'women'? What does this say about the real shared understandings of what a woman is and where she belongs?

If decades of equality didn't do much to actually change collective gender stereotypes and patriarchal worldviews, exactly what will? (OK, I'm exaggerating a bit: it was a public equality, but not necessarily equality in the private sphere, in the everyday life of households).

But hey, not everything bad happens outside the 'civilized' world (note sarcasm here). As a woman has been killed while jogging in BC, the RCMP representative commented something along these lines: "women have to ensure their safety when they go out jogging in a park"?!?! Excuse me?!?! Again, women have to do something to protect themselves: how about, for a change, society collectively makes an effort to de-legitimize violence against perceived members of a group - be they women, gay, immigrants and so on. How about we live in a society that takes collective responsibility for such gender-motivated (and for that matter, ethnic and race motivated) hate and violence, and ensures that punishment is adequate and that social discussion in the public sphere takes place?

I just finished reading a review of the new movie Polythechique, recreating the massacre of women in Montreal's higher education institution way back in 1989 (incidentally, the same year when communism fell in Eastern Europe, putting an end to the official communist policy of gender equality). I don't think there's anything that can be said here, but then maybe something should be said: what is it that makes some individuals hate the fact that other individuals are to be treated as equals? That they have rights, and that they have the right to say 'no'?

You'd think that after so many years of discussion on gender equality, there will be less and less individuals prone to thinking that men and women are two separate biological entities, defined by their reproductive system and therefore pre-ordained to a given social hierarchy. But I'm looking around and many male friends cannot cope with the reality of an equal female partner. Rationally, they think they're all for equality. But the truth is that they cannot deal with equality. Emotionally, they are not ready for it. They are not ready to be told "no, I'm not gonna sacrifice my life to have a child now" or "no, I'm too busy working, and too tired in the end of the day, so I'm not gonna cook, wash or iron". They are not ready to be told "you have no right to tell me what to do, and if you continue imposing your views on me, I'll dump you".

That's the society we live in: an official policy can accomplish only that much in affecting the everyday life of people. And the irony of it all is that sometimes it's the mothers raising up the boy as the king of the family - and, guaranteed, that boy is gonna grow up emotionally unable to cope with gender equality.

It seems all I do is rant about gender lately. How can I not? I opened the newspaper today, and like everyday in the past week, there's an item there about Michelle Obama's sense of fashion. This one got on my nerves: a cartoon (click here to see it, I'm not sure I can reproduce it here because of damn copyright concerns...) summarizing the collective imaginary of the relation between men and women. I know that a cartoon intends to mock by exaggerating traits - and I think this one does a very good job of showing us what we actually think: clothes are for women, brains are for men... I beg to differ!

Photo credits: nyki_m

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

You've (Not) Got the Looks!

Two business men are sitting at the bar, checking two women. One man says to the other: "Women after 30... they look like the lights went down on them". The other replies: "What do you mean?". "Women are glowing before they reach 30, they loose the glow after that", and he smiles nodding at one of the women.

The scene is from Mad Men, the popular TV series about advertising world in 1960s New York. It's set in the 1960s, but it could well be set in the 2000s. After all, that's when a female friend of mine was interviewing for an advertising position but she didn't get it because... well, let's put it this way, she wasn't a Barbie doll. Of course, nobody in the top management would ever admit to that, but they whispered off-the-record that she doesn't have what it takes - the looks.

But I'm not at all surprised, really! You see, I went to school with some of the men now in advertising. I remember a conversation we had - a conversation which only mirrored avant la lettre the world of Mad Men. We were talking about women, and my male colleagues were quick to make the distinction between women you marry and women that are best to be your lovers (in other words, women you cheat your wife with). Just like Don Draper, who kept a lovely wife at home (here's his mistake, according to my colleagues, she was just too beautiful) and a lovely yet fiercely independent lover, my colleagues argued that you marry the not-too-beautiful woman who worships you and waits for you at home with the hot soup on the table. The other ones - whether you are attracted to beauty or wits or both - are best kept outside the home.

Why is that, we asked? It's because you don't want to worry too much about what is at home. You want to come home and be taken care of. If you want the thrill, the fight, that's what lovers are for.

You think this is the past? Think again! This is very much today. And this is going to be the future as well. There will always be lazy and insecure people who want the quick way out. It's always easier to buy into stereotypes and live accordingly. And, truth be told, the society in which we live favors your looks, your appearance, your compliance to mainstream standards of beauty. Yes, there's way more room for contestation - but there's a difference between being tolerated and being seen as part of the 'normal' definition of everyday life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Home, Sweet Home

I must have been a Roman in a past life, cause for me, ubi bene ibi patria. Which of course makes me less suited for living in the modern world. For once, I always get annoyed when people assume that 'my place' or 'my home' has to be my place of birth.

Yes, I confess to the huge sin of moving out of my birthplace city and not missing it a bit. And why should I? The world is so big, filled with so many wonders, I couldn't resist it... I know that many people who leave their birthplace cannot escape it: they long for it constantly, romanticizing their life there and missing the trees, the birds, the air, the water - pretty much everything. Or, better said, their memory of this 'everything': the memory of a place that no longer exists, but only in their imagination.

The other day, a friend said "come back home". But I am home. Maybe I'm like a snail: I carry my home with me. Why do homes have to be rooted in a place? For David Morley (2000), the boundary constructing what is 'home' and what is 'elsewhere' is a shifting terrain, particularly in the context of global mobility and information flow. 'Home' came to be associated with a stable place, a stability derived not only from your position in the family structure, but also from the sharing of similar norms. At home, one simply knows. One doesn't have to 'learn' - it is easy to take things for granted, not to challenge the given 'order of things', to paraphrase Foucault's famous book. In my own experience of moving, I found out that the hardest thing to do is to remain open to change: to be willing to learn, to be willing to challenge yourself. One learns street names and meeting points quite quickly; but one has a very hard time getting used to the smells, the tastes and the rules of interaction.

Of course, no discourse loves 'homes' more than nationalism, linking 'nation', 'state' and 'home' in one unitary and powerful symbol, eliciting loyalty and uncritical adoration. The nation is not only a home and a family - it is a magnificent one. It is exceptional, which of course makes your own little pathetic life look more important than it is. In fact, nationalism is an ideology of 'geographical monogamy': you can only have one home in one national place. The promiscuous one is the one living in many places (Agnes Heller quoted in Morley, 2000, p. 41); s/he who has a home everywhere is not credible. How can s/he be loyal if s/he belongs to more than one family?

Yet, there was always someone who has inhabited that promiscuity, who has moved from one home to another. At least in patriarchal societies, that someone was the woman: born into a family, married into another, and sometimes creating a new family altogether. Medieval aristocracy knew this too well: the value of a woman was not only in her dowery, but in the bridges she could create across families. Anthropologists noted this pretty early in the study of non-Western, patriarchal societies: the woman is inahbiting that liminal space, being an "Other" to the family as well as a "Mother" of it. She's perpetuating the family, yet she's also merely a tool for this; it is not her lineage that counts, but that of the man. Like Dalilah, the woman brought into the family remains an "Other", a (needed) intruder who cannot be trusted because her home lies elsewhere.

Photo credits: suika*2009(ins&outs)
References: Morley, D. (2000) Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity. London and New York: Routledge.
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