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Archive for December, 2009

A Holiday Blessing

Whether you’re happy, merry, bah humbug, or undecided, well, right back atcha. Wishing you all health, happiness, love, friendship, creativity, fun, sex, success, and easy decision-making in the new year… and we’ll catch you on the flipside.

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Turning the Other Cheek?

Welcome to the opening salvos of the great pants war. To wit, while we were MIA, Dockers apparently took it upon itself to reconstruct society’s trek toward gender equality with its new ad campaign for men’s slim-fit, “soft” khakis. Such the bad plan. Dubbed “Wear the Pants”, the campaign comes with its own Man-ifesto (I don’t make this stuff up. That’s what they call it. And watch for the high-rent ads on Super-Bowl Sunday.) You can see the ad on your left. They also have a Facebook page, where folks can post their ruminations on the true definition of a man. Anyhow, the copy reads as follows:

Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.

Clearly, some copywriters were jonesing for a Mad Men fix and thought they could dabble in a little mid-century irony to sell some pants. Not exactly, writes the SF Chronicle’s stylewriter, Aaron Britt:

Arch? Stirring? Silly? And more importantly, did you balk when you registered that this throw-down has come not from some edgy line of denim or gauche leather emporium, but from none other than the world’s most peaked, pathetic pants: chinos. And it’s not just any chinos calling you a sissy. It’s Dockers.

But really, I’m a little bit flummoxed. Offended, even. Deconstruct the Man-ifesto and you find that the whole campaign is just not funny. In fact, it smells more than a little bit sexist in its sub-rosa rant against the women’s movement and the way in which some of those not-really-witty one-liners play into the worst fears of paranoid neanderthals: Does gender parity mean gender-less? If women succeed in stepping up, does that turn guys into girly-men (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s phrase, not mine)? With no men to wear the pants, do small children run wild and old ladies get run over?

Left unsaid, of course, is who is wearing the pants. Those emasculating women? And what, for the love of god, have they have done to the workplace?

Now, for years, ads directed toward women have preyed upon their need to be more, well, feminine: Wear this! Wax that! Paint those! And so you can argue that it’s no more than turnabout to sell pants by preying on men’s need to be more traditionally masculine. But see, here’s the difference: Does masculinity have to equate to keeping women in the kitchen? It’s clear where the women are in the scary Dockers scenario: Wearing their menfolks’ khakis, of course, which is why everything else has gone to hell. As Jami Bernard wrote on Walletpop:

Just because the Docker ads are tongue in cheek does not mean they’re not sexist. It’s one thing to encourage men to man up, another to tell them to “wear the pants” — an expression that taps directly into the old question: “Who wears the pants in this family?” There are only two possible answers: the man of the house, or the woman who has been stealing his thunder. “Wear the pants” is a call to arms, even when used jokingly, that says the only way to be a man is to put women in their place…

The real joke, of course, is that the pants in question, writes Broadsheet’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, is “the brand that made everybody’s asses look fat in the ’90s..” Whether or not we girls (or, for that matter, our guys) are wearing the pants — I doubt they’re gonna be Dockers.

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Readers, we’ve missed you, but we promise we’re back — and we’ve returned bearing gifts, in the form of a Q&A with the sharp, funny, honest, and slightly potty-mouthed author Erica Kennedy, whose first novel, Bling, is a New York Times Bestseller. But we bring her to you because Sydney, the main character in her new novel, Feminista*, is undoubtedly one of us. Allow me to quote:

She grew up believing she’d have it all. A Career with a capital C. A husband. Babies! She’d be the Enjoli woman, brining home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, never letting him forget he was a man! Who would’ve guessed the whole thing would turn out to be a scam, a cultural Ponzi scheme that would dupe every middle-class woman of her generation?

FUCK YOU, GLORIA STEINEM!

Ahem. I told you she was one of us. How could I not want to get Kennedy’s take on a few of our favorite subjects? It being the season of giving, she graciously obliged. Here are some excerpts.

SK: With regard to that quote [above], this feeling that it’s a scam, that we’ve all just been set up — do you believe that?

EK: In a sense, yes. But I don’t think it’s a scam. I think it’s a ‘grass is greener’ thing. When women were expected to stay home and take care of the kids, they yearned for more. They wanted to be out there, engaged with the world, making their own money, chasing their dreams. But then you get that and there are downsides to it. And then most still want to have kids and you realize how tough it is to manage both. But you can’t predict what that will be like until you’re in it.

I think that’s what the Opt-Out revolution is about. Women who got great educations because they were raised to believe they would have careers and that would be fulfilling but then they got out there and started working and realized how hard it was to juggle everything and made a choice to stay home. I know there are people who say the Opt-Out Revolution is a myth but I know many women who are living this life and many who would if they could afford to.

But that’s why “balance” is always the catchword when women are talking about their lives. Because we don’t want to kill ourselves working all the time, we don’t want to stay home forever, we want to find a way to integrate work and family (and whatever else we need to feed our spirit) in a way that feels right for each of us. And I think we’re in a time now where we are still learning how to do that. The paradigms are not in place. We all have guilt about making these choices, no matter which we choose. I think in the future, things like flextime programs will be more prevalent because that’s a way that companies won’t have to lose smart, talented women who feel like they need to make this either/or choice.

SK: So do you think the idea of ‘having it all’ is just a bunch of bullshit?

EK: To me, the bullshit is to think ‘having it all’ means one cookie cutter thing. Everyone is different and everyone has to define their ‘all’ for themselves. And do you really need it all? Can’t we be content with some? Do we always have to be chasing more?

SK: Your character Sydney is tormented by the pressure to do something amazing — the Career-with-a-Capital-C thing. Have you felt that yourself?

EK: I went to Stuyvesant, a high school for gifted students in New York. I went to Sarah Lawrence where women were encouraged to have Careers and the thought of NOT working was unheard of. I went to Oxford my junior year. So I think there were expectations that I would do something great and I internalized that and put a lot of pressure on myself. I don’t blame anyone for having high expectations of me but it goes back to what does ‘having it all’ mean? Does it mean having some fancy title, executive perks, making a lot of money, having your book on the NYT bestseller’s list? Or does it mean waking up and looking forward to your day, whatever you make of it? I sublet a place in Miami Beach when I was finishing Feminista and it was, hands down, the happiest time of my life. I would write at the beach, swin in the ocean every day, ride my bike around town. And part of that happiness came from being around people who were very chill, who didn’t define themselves by their jobs.

SK: Here’s another great quote from Feminista, variations of which we’ve heard from several of the women we’re profiling in Undecided: “Sometimes she thought, in a strange way, life was so much easier for people with no options… You didn’t sit around thinking, I could have been a documentarian or a forensic psychologist or a sitcom writer…” The angst over the road not traveled – a definite side effect of all the options. Does that affect you? How do you move past it?

EK: This has always been a huge problem for me, even now. I grew up in a middle class family where my father was a corporate exec, my mother started her own design business. Then I went to school with very wealthy kids and knew people in the hip-hop world, most of whom didn’t have formal educations but became millionaires by the time they were thirty. So nothing seemed out of reach for me. I lived in New York and knew people who were business owners and lawyers and CEOs and restauranteurs, anything you could name. And everyone knew I was this honor student, so literally every road was open to me. Which was crippling. So I floundered for many years, working at jobs I didn’t have any interest in because I didn’t know what I should be doing. There were too many possibilities.

A really big pet peeve of mine is that no one, at least in my experience, helps you identify what kind of career you might excel at. Because I think the thing that you will be successful and most fulfilled doing is that thing that you’d do even if someone wasn’t paying you. You can always find a way to make a career out of your talent or passion. But that innate thing may be the thing you completely ignore, like I did with writing. In college, no one helped me identify what my passion/talents/marketable skills were. Why isn’t that a required class?

The week before graduation, one of my professors asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And I said, “Um, married with children?” She was horrified. As was I. But I think that may have been my unconscious wish, to find someone to take care of me and make the decisions, because I was so ill-prepared, despite my ‘good education’, to do that for myself. I quit my 9-5 job at age 28 to write professionally and didn’t start writing my first book until I was 32.

And too many options doesn’t just apply to jobs but also to men and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. It’s the predicament of abundance. As women, all these doors have been thrown open for us but it’s like, Oh no, which one do I choose and where the fuck is it going to lead me?!

SK: In the book, Sydney sabotages herself, beats herself up, pushes others away–and yet, she’s extremely relatable. What do you think it is about Sydney that’s so universal?

I think what’s relatable about Sydney is that she’s trying to work it all out, what she wants and what she doesn’t want. But I actually didn’t expect a lot of women to identify with her because she’s very angry and bitter–and I consciously did that because I think we, as women, do have this anger and resentment about all the choices we have now and not knowing which to choose but we are socialized NOT to show our anger. We’re supposed to suck it up and worry about everyone else. I wanted Sydney to embody all of that repressed stuff. I hoped women would find her and they story interesting but I’m really surprised that so many women say they identify with her or that her story is their story.

*Feminista, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

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When you least expect it, life throws you a curveball. Without getting into tedious detail, suffice it to say we’ve been dealing with an unexpected emergency this past week, which is why you may have noticed that Undecided went dark.

But we’ll be back as usual sooner rather than later, when all is well, with a little wisdom to spare: Which is the fact that when shit happens, you tend to realize that all the little things you’ve been obsessing about, in the great scheme of things, weren’t necessarily worth the angst. As one wise friend once said, “Why worry? When the bad stuff happens, it’s never what you were worrying about.”

What you also learn is that, well, it’s not always about you. We angst and angst and take our plans so seriously, without ever acknowledging that life doesn’t have much interest in our plans at all. And in fact, the choices we think we have — may not actually even be choices afterall. What really matters is whether or not you step up to the plate.

What you realize is that you can. In the unforgettable words of Christopher Robin to Pooh (Thanks, Leslie!): “Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Truth. I’m sure you have your own stories of resilience. We’d like to hear them. Meanwhile, catch you next week, when many of us will be making a pilgrimage to the last-minute land of the Undecided, staggering around the shopping mall with the twenty-yard stare, wondering, “Hmmmm. Would she like the red one? Or the blue one?”

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You can just imagine my glee when I flipped through this week’s Newsweek to find an essay headlined “Who You Callin’ A Lady?. The deck read “The soft bigotry of high expectations.”

Holy jumpin’ Undecided, Batman! Isn’t this what we’ve been talking about in this space for months?

Enter the buzzkill. I realized that the essay, written by Kathleen Deveny, was just one more knee-jerk apologia for University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert’s reprehensible behavior in a game against BYU.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last month, you know that Lambert was suspended from her team for what might generously be called dirty playing (check the ESPN video below): She tripped players. She threw punches. She took players out with no ball in sight. Ugliest of all, she threw an opponent to the ground by yanking her by the ponytail and snapping her head back.

Let me back up. Both my daughters played soccer, at various levels. They attended a high school where women’s soccer was a feeder for top level university programs across the country. For years, members of the women’s soccer team at the university where I teach have made their way onto the rosters of the national team and the Olympic team. I’ve never played in a soccer game, but I’ve watched probably hundreds of them: Lambert goes way beyond dirty. Don’t want to take my word for it? Listen to former Olympian Julie Foudy.

Which is why I am so dismayed to see Lambert thrown up as a feminist icon, with her behavior a symbol of how society’s high expectations for women hold them back. The issue is real, but when you use Lambert as the poster girl, well, suddenly, the argument starts to disintegrate.

In fairness, Deveny makes some good points. When she gets past comparing Lambert’s suspension — and the media storm that surrounded it — to the reinstatement of football player Michael Vick, she gets onto less shaky ground:

The difference is that we expect bad behavior from men—on the field and off. (In some ways, men justify our low opinion of them: they are 10 times more likely to murder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.) But we expect better from women. We didn’t fight this hard to be involved in organized sports just so we could act like a bunch of dumb jocks, right? We want women to be honest, compassionate, and nice—you know, like our moms.

So what’s the harm in expecting the fairer sex to play fairer? It’s what George W. Bush might call the soft bigotry of high expectations. If we insist on holding women and girls to higher standards than men, we set them up to disappoint us. It makes me worry about my 9-year-old daughter, and not because I hope she will someday pull hair with the best of them. I think she is sometimes held to stricter behavior standards than her boys-will-be-boys classmates. Those higher expectations follow us onto the job, where women are allegedly not only better behaved and more honest but cheaper—you only have to pay us 80 cents on the dollar! So why aren’t we represented at the highest levels of business? One problem is that women aren’t supposed to be aggressive or self-promoting—that’s nasty male behavior—even though it’s often rewarded. And yet if professional women are too nice and cuddly, they don’t seem decisive or tough enough to be leaders. “The ‘women are wonderful’ effect does have a terrible downside,” says Alice H. Eagly, a psychology professor and coauthor of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. “If you’re too nice, you’re seen as not really appropriate for high-level positions.”

Good points. (Except that bit about Mom. Since when is Mom a synonym for soft?) But maybe we need to start thinking beyond her message. If it is true that women are held to different, and higher standards, maybe it’s not the expectations that do us in, but rather the institutional structures that support them. Playing like the boys for the past several decades really hasn’t gotten us that far. Could it be that what needs to be changed are the structures — not the women?

A few months ago, in a post on the differences between men and women and how we need to embrace them, Shannon quoted a speech by Omega Women’s Institute founder, Elizabeth Lesser:

We’ve had centuries of power and leadership where men have been at the helm. There’s some real serious gaps in representation in the world. And also the world’s in trouble. What would happen if women became empowered and could lead from their core basic values? Not just let’s put women into a structure that is about up-down power, like I have power over you. But what if women could actually influence the way power was wielded in the world, from a core feminine place. … The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

Which is why this whole l’affaire Lambert has me so dismayed. It’s not that she was castigated for playing like the boys — it’s that she was playing like the very worst of them.

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When everything is on the menu, it takes an awful lot of willpower to say, you know, I’m not really that hungry. Even if you’re really not that hungry. Even if, in fact, you’re stuffed.

This being the season of the cocktail party, I’m unable to think in anything other than food metaphors, but, in this post, which concerns a recent piece by journalist/author Naomi Wolf–she of The Beauty Myth fame–I think an appetizer allegory works. The piece, entitled “The Achievement Myth,” launches with what has now become the de rigeur bashing of Marcus Buckingham’s take on the study The Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness, emphasizing that, rather than describing themselves as unhappy:

…the women had told the researchers whom Buckingham cited that they were ‘not satisfied’ with many areas of their lives. If Western women have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is how to be unsatisfied with the status quo.

And thank god for that. Thanks to the women who gave voice to their dissatisfaction and drove the changes of those years, we’re free to seek out better: we no longer have to settle for unsatisfying jobs, bosses, or sex lives. And, as Wolf points out, we’ve gotten pretty darn good at pinpointing our dissatisfaction, and, from there, setting our sights on greener pastures. But the lure of better, the implicit promise of better, well, that’s where it gets tricky. Here’s a little more from Wolf:

But the downside of this aspirational language and philosophy can be a perpetual, personal restlessness. Many men and women in the rest of the world–especially in the developing world–observe this in us and are ambivalent about it.

Indeed, the definition of Western feminism as “always more” has led to a paradox. Our girls and young women are unable to relax. New data in the West reveal that we have not necessarily raised a generation of daughters who are exuding self-respect and self-esteem. We are raising a generation of girls who are extremely hard on themselves–who set their own personal standards incredibly, even punishingly high–and who don’t give themselves a chance to rest and think, “that’s enough.”

Enough. It’s a simple concept–and yet utterly foreign. This is the home of the All You Can Eat Buffet, after all. And when you’re told you can Have It All, well, to settle for anything short of that is… to settle. To turn in your plate before sampling the goods at every station is to miss out on your money’s worth.

Wolf suggests we’d be wise to redefine our definition of success beyond the professional and the external, to include

other forms of achievement, such as caring for elderly parents, being a nurturing member of the community, or–how very un-Western!–attaining a certain inner wisdom, insight, or peace.

…Should Western feminism deepen its definition of a successful woman’s life, so that more than credentials can demonstrate well-made choices? I believe the time is right to do so. As markets collapse, unemployment skyrockets, and the foundations of our institutions shift in seismic ways, this could be a moment of great opportunity for women and those for whom they care.

It certainly could be. And while I am in no position to demonstrate how to walk the line between satisfaction and settling, maybe we could take a lesson from the buffet line. That maybe it’s worth setting the same sort of goal in life as we do in the dining room: like the kind of awareness that allows us pass up the mini-quiches we kind of like so we’ll have room to really enjoy the crab cakes we adore, that places us fully in the moment of bliss that is a mouthful of warm brie rather than the distracted did-I-really-just-eat-14-cheese-puffs? variety blackout, that empowers us to skip the eggnog everyone else tries to shove down our throats but that we actually cannot stand, the kind of consciousness that allows us to recognize the spot where we’re full–and to actually stop there and enjoy the fullness.

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Seeing as how this is the week of “fitting in” — or not so much — my ears perked up the other day when I was having a chat with a prof whose area of research includes career and workplace issues. When she mentioned a study that suggested that women may avoid situations — like math or engineering — when they feel outnumbered, I instantly thought Undecided.

I also thought of my daughters, who excelled in math in high school, but never pursued it.  (I did — for one quarter of college.  But that’s another story.) I also thought of women like one family member who has been a lawyer for years — but never really liked it. At one point, in fact, she took a career aptitude test (like that one our elusive Ms. X went searching for when she was in college) and found that all the results pointed in one direction: engineering. She wasn’t surprised. Just somewhat regretful.

But back to the study (you can link to a pdf here) in question. Researchers Mary Murphy, Claude Steele and James Gross found that when women math, science and engineering undergrads simply watched a video, pitching a fictional conference, where men outnumbered women, they showed the physical signs of threat — faster heart rates and sweating — and reported a lower sense of belonging, and less desire to participate in the conference at all. The researchers also found that the women who watched the gender unbalanced video were more vigilant of their surroundings overall.

All of which suggests one reason why women may avoid fields like math and engineering: it’s not “innate differences”, as erstwhile Harvard President Lawrence Summers infamously suggested back in 2005. It may be that we just don’t feel welcome.

All of which makes sense when we are talking science and related fields. But what about the workplace in general? Could these “social identity threats” be one reason we are often unsure of ourselves? Agonize over career decisions? Look over our shoulders? Stick with safe and risk-free women-friendly careers (which, incidentally, might be more comfy, but fall lower on the pay scale)?

Sometimes it’s the threat, not the reality, that does us in. Why we end up side-stepping opportunites instead of marching right in, loaded for bear. Add it all up and you just might find that, math rules notwithstanding, two and two equals five after all.


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