Tag Archives: sexism/misogyny

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.

Feminist Hero of the Week

Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University, is using her senior thesis to bring attention to campus rape, decry the failure of university officials to prosecute her rapist, and combat rape victim stigma.

She has announced her intention to carry her mattress with her around campus until her rapist is brought to justice.

From the TIME article on her piece:

Sulkowicz started the performance-art project on Tuesday, and she said she is determined to continue carrying the mattress wherever she goes — to class, the library, the gym — as long as her alleged rapist is still on campus. That means her project could last until graduation day in May 2015 — unless her alleged assailant is either expelled or chooses to leave the school. Last year, Sulkowicz and two other women reported the same person to the university. All three cases were dismissed.

Amazing.

Strength and solidarity to you, Emma, and rape victims everywhere.

 

Gender Neutral in English

Oh, pronouns.

If you read a lot of social science books in English, you’ll undoubtedly find a statement about pronoun use in the front matter of some of them.  The dilemma seems to be that people feel uncomfortable choosing pronouns to use for gender-neutral purposes.  The everyday speech solution– to use the plural (they/their/them) as singular neutral– is inappropriately casual for writing.  Modern scholars have tried to artificially construct gender neutral pronouns for English, with mixed results.  Some authors alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, and are then compelled to devise some system for making sure that the representation of the pronouns is balanced overall.  Some authors, especially in books about reproductive processes, assign a certain set of pronouns to all subjects of a certain description for clarity (e.g., in midwifery texts the baby usually takes the masculine pronouns because the person gestating/birthing/nursing the baby usually takes the feminine pronouns).  Very few modern scholars will defend the use of he/his/him as gender-neutral.

Feminist scholars have claimed that using he/his/him as neutral pronouns disappears people who take feminine pronouns because it creates the false impression that all these general persons are masculine, and that treating masculine as default and feminine as aberration is a form of misogyny.

Unfortunately, there’s an etymology problem with this line of reasoning– him and his aren’t simply masculine pronouns.

A proto-Germanic forbear of English created all of the masculine pronouns of modern English.  But, of course, it’s not that simple, because early English actually had a full neuter person.

Singular

Plural

masculine

neuter

feminine

nominative he hit heo (hio) hie (hi)
accusative hine hit hie (hi) hie (hi)
genitive his his hire hira (heora)
dative him him hire him (heom)

All these words are variations on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *ki-, meaning “this”, as opposed to “that”.  Over the course of time, the initial letter dropped from the neuter accusative and nominative to become “it”, which replaced all other cases for the neuter and became a way to differentiate between objects and people when English nouns lost their gender in the middle ages.  The assumption modern English makes is that things without gender are not people, so using the neuter pronouns that still exist to refer to people is offensive.*

In this space, when I need to use a gender-neutral pronoun,** I will use the traditional set of Old English neuter pronouns adapted for the modern English cases: “hit” for the subjective, “his” for the possessive, and “him” for the objective.

 


 

Chart adapted from here

 

*It occurs to me that this line of thinking conflates “being neither masculine nor feminine” with “being less than human”.  Is it necessary to fit into the gender binary in order to be human?  Is it necessary to have a gender in order to be human?  Obviously not, because unborn babies are humans totally without gender.  Is considering “it” to be a denigrating pronoun for humans in itself transphobic, because to think so accepts the assumption that if you aren’t masculine or feminine you aren’t human?

**I do use feminine pronouns for describing general case people who are pregnant, birthing, and nursing, because as a midwife, I have to hold sacred the feminine nature of childbearing.  I recognize that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, and that some childbearing people prefer other pronouns, but for the general case, I will persist in feminine pronouns.