Tag Archives: gender

These Two Things

I’ve been scrabbling desperately to get a grip on the way forward this month, so I’ve been hanging back, practicing self-care, and just trying to get my head clear.

Here’s what I have:

The world has gotten scary.  People are dying in the streets.  The white hoods are back.  The government is torturing Indians in furtherance of giving them poison to drink.  Children are learning that hate is an American value.

There are two things that I know are true, that we can use against this terror and darkness.

Over the past weeks, they have seemed like laughably inconsequential things and impossibly large things, but they’ve never stopped being primal.

The first thing is love.  We can love ourselves.  We can love each other.  We can love fat people, not-conventionally-attractive people, “fours”, “losers”, black people, people who don’t speak English, trans people, disabled people, gay people, people who have had abortions, Muslim people, native people, people who have been “grabbed”, all the people.  We can love them.  We can love us.

And that’s the most powerful tool we have against hate and fear: we can choose love instead.  We can reject the notion that some are so different that they are unlovable.  We can laugh in the face of the cultural rubric we’re supposed to use to judge the value of femmefolk and just love them instead.

We can practice self-care.  We can make safe spaces for each other.  We can help one another.  We can reach out.  We can stand in the street in front of the mosque and say “These people are my neighbors.  I love them, and I won’t let you harm them.”  We can give a colleague a hug and say “You are loved.”  We can offer flowers to strangers, like hippies, and we can tell them– yes, those people we don’t even know– that we love them.  We can see someone struggling and offer our help.  We can ask what the family down the street needs to be safe, and help them get it.  We can love.  We can love the white working-class, and let them know that there’s a place for them in the future.  We can raise children who know, like Mister Rogers used to say, that there’s no one in the world quite like them and people can like them just the way they are.  We can tell gay kids and fat kids and brown-skinned kids that the world is fucked up, but they are just fine the way they are.  We can listen to people, especially when they say they are being harmed.

We can love the earth, too.  I know that this is like, “Again with the hippie nonsense?!”, but it’s still true.  We can love the trees.  We can lovingly plant wildflowers for pollinators to find.  We can pick up trash at the beach because we love the ocean, and the birds, and the sand.  We can sit outside and breathe deep and love the air.

We can reach out into our communities and our world and love what we find.  We don’t have to withdraw and fear what’s outside.  We can offer love as an alternative to hate.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is a bit harder.

Yes, harder than loving strangers.

But it’s just as important.

The second thing is independence.  We can do it ourselves.  We can stop relying on the state to protect our interests.  We can stop calling the police.  We can stop shopping at the Wal-Mart.  We can stop expecting anomic society to take care of our problems.  We can take responsibility for our own needs.  It doesn’t matter how horrible, how corrupt, how oppressive these institutions become if we deny them legitimacy and reject their attempts to shape our lives.  They need US, not the other way around.

We don’t have to participate in systems that oppress us or others.  We don’t have to be complicit in the state’s oppression of its enemies.  We can choose and build our communities for ourselves.  We can think critically about our actions and listen to those who are harmed by them, even in steps of the process that seem beyond our control.  We can make slave labor, deforestation, pollution, and factory farming unprofitable for businesses by refusing to profit by them ourselves.

We can vote with our dollars for the future we want.  We can support local businesses run by our neighbors and friends.  We can see our supply chains and improve them.  We can offer help to people who are struggling instead of reporting them to the authorities.  We can share our resources with those in need instead of expecting the state to feed, clothe, and house them.  We can clean it up ourselves instead of filing a complaint about litter.  We can leverage our privilege to protect marginalized people.  We can protect each other and set expectations for our communities instead of relying on the police to enforce the state’s rules.  We can learn to make things ourselves.  We can grow our own food, or join CSAs.  We can buy things from independent artisans instead of faceless factories.  We can get together with our neighbors to do hard things together.  We can raise barns and put up jam and bring homemade bread and soup to the old lady next door who has trouble walking.  We can start a childcare co-op, or shop at the farmer’s market, or learn to sew our own clothes.  We can choose a midwife instead of submitting to industrial medicine.  We can learn about the natural world around us and work with it instead of destroying it.  We can buy good things, made with love and designed to work well, and maintain them.  We can mend things that break.

We can be proactive and make a better future for everyone.  We don’t have to accept the options the state-industrial complex offers us, and we don’t have to chase the 1%’s definition of success.  We can make our own society.

And together, if we all work on those two things– love and independence– we will be unstoppable.  Whether you can only participate in little ways, or you have the resources to make big changes, everything will make a difference.

I’m not saying that the dark forces at work in our world won’t matter or won’t be able to harm people, but we don’t have to sit back and let them take over.  We can both choose not to be bullies ourselves AND not to allow bullying around us.  We don’t have to give up ground.  We don’t have to stop pushing forward.  We can still make progress if we all work together.

We can find the way forward– or make a new one for ourselves– if we can all practice love and seek independence.

That’s what I think, anyway.

With love and gratitude for all of you,

Elizabeth

It Matters Monday: Ghostbusters Matters

“Safety lights are for dudes.” — Jillian Holtzmann, Ghostbusters (2016)

We saw the new Ghostbusters movie last weekend (spoilers herein).

It was AWESOME.

AND, importantly, it was a movie about women: a lesbian, a fat woman, a black woman, and a hopeless nerd.  I was asked a few months ago how I could possibly be excited to see this movie just based on the knowlege that it was a gender-swapped reboot, and the answer is, because gender MATTERS.

We’re not talking about Charlie’s Angels.  This was a movie about women being the main characters, driving the plot, existing for their own stories rather than being the decoration or the macguffin in someone else’s.  There were no gratuitous shots of cleavage or pantylines, no slow-motion walk-ups in full hair and make-up, no jokes or lines about the characters’ attractiveness.

The jokes were about female experiences: Kristen Wiig’s character is taken aside by her boss and immediately assumes he wants to talk about her attire being inappropriate for the workplace (even though she is dressed very conservatively).  There’s a practical joke that features a queef.  There are jokes about high-heeled shoes being impractical and getting stuff stuck in your bra.

The tension is also about female experiences: A white dude is given a media platform to crucify the Ghostbusters as an “expert,” to audit their narrative “objectively.”  The GBs are told over and over again that their work is a hobby, amateur, unprofessional, unnecessary, poorly-conducted, and that they should expect to be publicly shamed and disavowed even by people who know about ghosts (which Melissa McEwan at Shakesville sees as an extended metaphor about feminism).

I was excited to see this movie from the first time I heard about it.  I wanted to see a woman in a major motion picture who was as much of a sexual being as Venkman, as much of a hopeless nerd as Ray, as scary-smart as Egon, as frank and relatable as Winston.

And this movie DELIVERED on that.  Robert said it was like they put the original GB characters in a blender and poured out four new characters– but it’s more than that.  Each of the four is her own person, with her own priorities and her own story arc.  All of the important aspects of the Ghostbusters as characters carried through to the rebooted characters, in new but simultaneously familiar ways.

And, like Brave and Frozen, little girls are going to see this movie and it will expand their horizons.  They’re going to see that science is cool, that femmefolk can be friends without being catty and spiteful, that they can be funny, powerful, irreverent, strong, smart, scary, sexual, fat, brown, and heroic, just like guys can.

They’re going to see that, even if The Man doesn’t recognize your accomplishments, people will still see you and value what you did.

They’re going to see that they can be the heroes in their own stories.

And little boys are going to see women doing and being all that stuff, too.  And that will change the world for them.

Because media representation MATTERS.

Seriously, Though

Can we talk for a minute about RBF?

http://www.buzzfeed.com/kelleydunlap/kacey-musgraves-resting-bitch-face#.tdk9A2eeQw

RBF, or Resting Bitch Face (also known as Bitchy Resting Face), is a term for the common neutral noncommittal facial expressions of some women.  Not ALL women, mind you, but some women.  Certain women, you might say.

Certain women with a reputation for being too serious.  Or thoughtful.  Or introverted.  Or intellectual.

Certain women who are well-known Feminist Killjoys.

Certain women who are “attractive” enough to merit street harassment.

Certain women, in short, whose default facial expression is somehow out of alignment with the harshly-enforced cultural mandate that, in order to occupy the space marked “feminine,” people must fulfill a decorative function at all times.

Let me be VERY clear: this is about objectification.  This is about women LOOKING a certain way, regardless of how they feel or what they desire.  This is about the society dictating what is acceptable in terms of the impression given to random passers-by on the street by a woman’s facial muscle positions and activities.

Obviously this is bullshit.

I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for months waiting for inspiration to finish it, because I could get as far as “bullshit” but no further.  I wish I could convey dismay, shock, or outrage, but those are hot-burning emotions and I don’t really feel them about this subject anymore.

Not because it’s unimportant, or because it’s not worthy of passionate criticism, or because I’m not upset about it, but because, as someone who has met the appearance parameters for a sexually mature woman for 15 years, I have burned through all my hot and passionate feelings on the subject of street harassment and society telling me that the impression my appearance gives to strangers is my responsibility to manage.  I am left with impotent frustration, and a kind of righteous indignation, which are much less motivating to write about.

But I think that the very fact that I’ve become inured to this kind of policing, at the relatively young age of 27, makes it worth talking about.

So, let’s break it down.

As social animals, humans create a social order, which is constantly adapted and maintained by displays of threat and submission behavior.  In apes, the most salient submissive behavior display is the baring of teeth, also called the fear grin.  Some extremely hierarchical groups of macaques use teeth baring almost reflexively upon the approach of the dominant animal, and the most common result of the interaction is that the dominant animal allows the submissive to retreat, which removes the submissive animal from the risk of physical abuse.  Apes in more egalitarian societies, such as chimpanzees, use teeth baring as an appeasement gesture that seems to invite social interaction within the group by reassuring the other animals that the bared-teeth individual does not intend to cause them harm.

The analogous smile, in humans, serves many of the same functions: it reassures others that the smiling person does not pose a threat, it is an invitation to social interaction, and it often accompanies courtesy phrases (such as “excuse me” or “my mistake”) used to signal a known violation of social norms.  There is evidence, however, that smiling is also perceived by humans to be more feminine than other facial expressions.

In one study, babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed, gurgled and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled more often when confronted with furious female countenances or beaming male ones.

— Katy Waldman, Slate

The Slate article goes on to rather weakly associate women acting as smilers with social affiliation management– positing that girls and women are trained to smile more in order to do “emotion labor” (i.e., smooth over social situations and bridge differences between groups of friends and extended family)– before lamely concluding that everyone should smile a bit more because it would make the (female) journalist herself smile.

The truth is that humans have a range of emotions– and related expressions– almost unique in the animal kingdom, even among social animals (only orcas are believed to experience more emotional states, and it’s not entirely clear yet how they communicate them without the mobile face of the ape).  So for most people, most smiling is the companion of genuine positive feeling, whether they are remembering a funny joke or glorying in the sun on their face for the first time after a long winter.  But there is another kind of smile that isn’t related to emotion.

The Duchenne smile– named after a 19th-century French neurologist– is the genuine kind.  Its display is correlated with positive emotion, and it involves both the muscle groups around the mouth (zygomatic major) and the eyes (obicularis oculi).  It’s fairly rare, and occurs with similar frequency between men and women.  The smile that humans use purely for its ability to diffuse tense social situations, often called the botox or Pan Am smile, uses only the zygomatic major, and women report using it much more.  (The open-mouthed play smile, by contrast, is not related to the bared-teeth display, and is instead itself  present in lower primates in the “play face”, and eventually develops into laughing in humans.)

Neonatal gorilla showing the social, or “Pan Am”, smile. http://mentalfloss.com/article/32134/gorilla-expressions-could-point-origins-human-laughter

The early smiles of human infants are a mix of Duchenne and Pan Am smiles, and while their cause is not well understood, it is likely that the Duchenne smiles are a response to pleasure and contentment (joy is a more mature emotion, and develops at around 9 months of age), while the Pan Am smiles are socially-driven or even reflexive.  Even near-term premature infants learn to mimic the facial expressions of their caregivers (it only takes about 10 days to train human infants from about 34 weeks’ gestation onward to stick out their tongues in mimicry), and the relatively immature human infant relies on social affiliation to live, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that babies are trained to smile in reflex to adult smiles, even in the neonatal period.

But when does gender enter the equation?  For many American parents, gender policing starts long before birth, and many studies show that parents have different expectations of infants as young as four months old based on their physical sex.  By the age of five years, female children are adapted to performing more emotion labor than their male peers, and are more likely to exhibit a smile (a Pan Am smile, of course) in response to receiving a disappointing gift.

The false smile can take a real toll on your health.  Flight attendants, from whom the Pan Am smile got its colorful name, report feeling robotic, artificial, or even distant from their own emotional realities after a long shift with the zygomatic major engaged.  While it is true that deliberately smiling can trigger more positive emotional cues in the brain, smiling because you are told to– when you’d rather not– can be damaging.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/erinlarosa/problems-all-people-with-resting-bitchface-will-understand#.fldw6rkkz8

What does all this mean about Resting Bitch Face?

  • Smiling is gendered work, and women are expected to do it.  Even little girls are tasked with a disproportionate amount of emotion labor.
  • Social smiling is based on a primal, non-verbal language, and women are under a greater societal expectation to communicate that they are non-threatening and open to interaction or afraid and subordinate.
  • Women who appear in public without their smile are perceived as hostile and aggressive partially because of mammal-level animal reasoning, but there is no way to ignore the gendered nature of smiling, especially when street harassers so often publicly shame and threaten women for their neutral or negative expressions.

At its core, the tyranny of the smile is about gender policing.  At its core, the gendered nature of emotion labor is about allowing men to have full rights and freedoms at the expense of women.  At its core, the social smile is about fear and submission.  At its core, RBF is about women being objects.

TODAY wants to reassure you that you can get plastic surgery to fix your RBF (apparently that’s a thing), or you know, you can at least work on smiling a bit more so people will be less worried that you might be doing something dangerous, like thinking:

Ann-Marie Stillion, a communication strategist and artist from Seattle, says she’s recently made an effort to wear a smile when in public after having her resting face repeatedly misinterpreted by strangers, friends, and colleagues.

“I look mad when I am thinking which has gotten me in a whole lot of trouble,” she says. “So, I smile a lot now, not because I’m so happy but because I know it makes people more comfortable.”

And people are welcome to take those routes because Underpants Rule.

But as for me, I will be proudly taking my RBF to the streets, because I am not an object.

Not a decoration.  Not a sex toy.  Not a social lubricant.  Not a service tool.

And I won’t have the only unapologetic RBF out there.

 


 

Additional Science Facts Sources:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2555422/

http://www.andhranews.net/Technology/2010/May/13-Bared-teeth-motif-expresses-smile-17185.asp

http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/dmessinger/c_c/rsrcs/rdgs/emot/Messinger_Smiling_elsevier.pdf

Feminist Hero of the Week

Stacy Ehrisman-Mickle is an attorney in Georgia who filed a motion to change a court date because the original court appearance was scheduled to occur during her maternity leave.

The judge hearing the case refused to change the date, even though courts routinely postpone hearings to accommodate litigators’ vacation plans.

Stacy did not have any childcare available for her four-week-old baby the day she was required to appear in court to represent her clients.  She was given only a few days notice, despite having filed the motion to change the date nearly a month in advance.

She came in, to do her job, to help her clients with their immigration case, wearing the baby in what looks like a front SSC compatible with hands-free breastfeeding.  When the baby wasn’t totally silent over the course of the hearing (because BABIES), the judge interrupted the proceedings to publicly scold Stacy, both for her unprofessionalism in bringing her child to work AND FOR ENDANGERING THE HEALTH OF HER CHILD by exposing the baby to potential contagion.

Yep.  You read that right.

This guy refused to accommodate Stacy’s maternity leave and then, when she came in and honored her commitments to her clients while she was supposed to be home with her newborn, he publicly called her a bad lawyer AND a bad mother.

Stacy has filed a complaint.  The judge has declined to comment.

Stacy kicks ass.  And I hope she knows it.

Nobody should have to do what she did– and nobody is obligated to; she could have just as validly resigned from the case– but it was an act of courage.  Furthermore, it was an act of dedication both to her job and to her child.  Stacy demonstrated professionalism and good mothering at the same time.

Keep on rocking, Stacy.

 

 

 

The Boxtrolls is on the Problematic list

I was extremely displeased today to discover that yet ANOTHER kids’ movie has to go on the list of Movies Too Problematic for Small Children.

I had seen previews for The Boxtrolls, and it looked cute, and like perhaps it would have some good messages about identity and performance/presentation, or family and belonging.  I was excited to maybe see it for myself later in the year depending on what our drive-in theater chooses to show.  But apparently the movie has been manipulated into essentially one long reinforcement of harmful cultural narratives about gender nonconformity/trans*ism.

So…we won’t be seeing that movie.

The Problematic list is a long one.  I’m not overly choosy, but I have this thing about media sources teaching my children that excitement, adventure, and fun are the handmaidens of hate.  We are the parents who LOUDLY criticized the preview of Earth to Echo for the joke about femininity degrading a masculine character.  We are the people won’t stop talking about the sexual hyper-dimorphism in Brave and Frozen.  We are the family who refused to see Planes: Search and Rescue because the preview was sexually objectifying, racist, and hyper-masculine.

Now, my standards are far from exacting– our beloved local film The Goonies doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and neither does the oh-so-fun Monsters, Inc.  We adore Brave and Frozen.  The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t make the Problematic list for a few unnecessary jokes about sexual objectification.  There are some questionable colonial elements and some consent problems in Lilo and Stitch, but it’s still allowed.  We loved Maleficient, despite the innocuous portrayal of a sex crime.

The question is, are there are few iffy spots that I can make sure to talk to my kids about, or would I need to debrief the entire message of the movie or the way a whole character is portrayed?

One of the reasons we go to the drive-in rather than a conventional theater is so that I have my own mostly-soundproof viewing box in which I can debrief and discuss with (and for the benefit of) my children.  Frequently, the preview seems okay, but the actual film has big issues, so I feel that it’s essential for me and Robert to have the freedom to call things bad, unfunny, hurtful, damaging, dangerous, stupid, bigoted, and unacceptable when they are so.  This way, while our children are exposed to the film, they are simultaneously exposed to our criticisms of it and are less likely to model their behavior after the bad examples on the screen.

I wish there were content ratings that actually addressed this stuff.  I don’t care if there are nipples visible, if the story deals with death, or if someone says “fuck”, but I care deeply about whether people are casually or “hilariously” exploited, othered, and shamed based on their identities.  I am glad to have had a heads-up about The Boxtrolls, because evidently it is very transmisogynist.  I have the opportunity to choose not to see it based on its message being damaging.

When entire characters have no relevance to the plot besides a joke about othering them, when characters are functionally more like props due to an inappropriate lack of agency, when hate is consistently portrayed as funny or meritorious or (perhaps worst of all) unremarkable, those works go on the Too Problematic for Small Children list.

And I am upset about the length of the list.