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Archive for May, 2011

Funny the stuff you find on Facebook that you would never find on your own.

For example, I discovered that Beyonce has this new video for her song, “Run the World (Girls)”.  Have you seen it?  If not, what you see are a bunch of strong, in charge, kick ass girls who are, um, running the world.  Lyrics?

Who run the world? Girls!
Who run this motha? Girls!
Who run the world? Girls!

Powerful images of take-no-prisoners girls.  Big hair, big heels, unabashedly sexy.  Great images, right?

Or not so much.  Because on Facebook, via Jemhu Greene —  a political commentator, social justice organizer, and former president of the Women’s Media Center — we find the perfect counterpoint video from Nineteen Percent that explains exactly what’s wrong with such media images of powerful, dominant, got-it-together women.  They’re lies.  Take a watch below:

Her point?  Such media images lull us into a fall sense of achievement, and distract us from “the work it takes to actually run the world.”  Shall we count the way in which we don’t?  Pay equity is one: seventy-seven cents on the dollar, anyone?  Or how about workplace structures that have not yet shifted to accommodate the fact that the majority of the workplace is made up of women, many of them with kids, and almost always without a housewife at home to drive the carpool?  Or there’s the maternal wall: the fact that women are often discriminated against in the workplace simply because of their gender.  Kids?  Uh-oh: flight risk.  No kids yet?  Yeah, but maybe someday…  Or maybe not ever.  In which case, um, outside the norm.  And then there’s this:  As Nineteen percent points out, women are the only American group classified as a minority — that makes up the majority of the population.  Go figure.

Sure it’s nice to see female doctors and lawyers on TV, but as Nineteen Percent says on the video:

Lady humans can work outside the home – but a simple survey of reality will reveal we don’t run anything – and pretending we do will get us nowhere…

So true.  The images won’t get us anywhere until there’s some actual change behind them.  You know, the kind of change that will result in a shift in policy and values, and in workplace structures.  Pretending otherwise, well, it just lulls us into a false sense of complacency.  We’ve gone here before:

Tell everyone the problem’s been solved already, and maybe it’ll go away. Move along, nothing to see here… Nothing, of course, but those inequalities listed … below:

  • A Girl Scouts study found that young women avoid leadership roles for fear they’ll be labeled ‘bossy’;
  • women are four times less likely than men to negotiate a starting salary…
  • which is probably for the best, as a Harvard study found that women who demand more money are perceived as “less nice” (=less likely to be hired).

As infuriating as all of that may be — and, duh, it is — even more so is the fact that no one seems to be pissed off about it. And, I’d venture to say, there are even some among us who read those stats, who are familiar with the surveys and the survey results, and yet, somehow, can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it.

Susan Douglas would diagnose that as a classic case of “Enlightened Sexism,” and her new book on the subject makes a compelling case that, because of all the advances that we have made — and because of a lopsided accentuating of the positives (so sugar and spiced and everything niced are we!), the stereotypes, inequities, and biases that would have once been called sexist go unnoticed. Turn on the TV, she says: there are women doctors, women lawyers, women detectives and DAs and Hillary Clinton and Oprah to show you: See? We have come a long way, baby! But all that rose-colored imagery doesn’t exactly reflect reality. For instance, here’s something you might not have realized:

The four most common female professions today are: secretary, registered nurse, teacher, and cashier–low-paying, “pink collar” jobs that employ 43 percent of all women. Swap “domestic help” for nurse, and you’d be looking at the top female jobs from 1960, back when want ads were segregated by gender.

Ahem.  So sure, I like big hair and big shoes and the image of kick-ass girls as much as the next, well, kick-ass girl.  And maybe I even like Beyonce.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  We’ve still got a way to go.  And pretending that we don’t — well, that’s one sure way to keep us in our place.

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So Wednesday I had an interview with Kathryn Zox on VoiceAmerica and she asked me if I could think of a more positive word for “compromise.”  And to be honest — well,  it was early in the morning — I could not.

Can you?  Thing is, life is all about the trade-offs.  But “compromise”?  It’s a dirty word.

We had been talking about the choices that women have to make when navigating the uncertain terrain that goes under the general heading of “you can have it all.”  Killer career.  Great family life.  Making it all work.   And all at the same time.  It goes to the heart of what makes decisions so difficult for women in this new reality:  opportunity cost.  If you are doing A, by definition you can’t be doing B.  Or at least, not well.  And yet.  We try.  Because to be less than perfect at one or the other means we think we have failed.

Case in point:  Kathryn spoke of taking the train up from New York one night not long ago, riding in business class, where though she tried to avoid listening, she was privy to a long cellphone conversation between a well-dressed business woman and her husband.  And her little girl.  And then her husband.  And then her little girl.  And on and on.  The gist?  Mommy was coming home from a business trip, but apparently felt obliged to be the one to put her little girl to bed.  A bedtime story?  Mommy loves you?  Daddy, are you doing it right?

And there you have it.  A good metaphor for trying to do it all, have it all.  And all the pressure we put on ourselves, whether we have a family, whether we don’t, or whether we ever will.

We don’t like to talk about compromise because it implies that we have settled for something less than perfect.  Or maybe, we’re uncomfortable with the word because we still haven’t figure out how to make our way through this uncharted territory.   So maybe when we parse it all out, when we cast about for a more positive way to say “compromise,” the operative word is choice.

Or maybe the term is letting go.  As Lori, one of the women in our book, told us, “Maybe it’s that society is telling us all that we have to be successful career women — but the world has forgotten to mention that if we want to do that, we can let go of worrying about our pound cake.”

And is that so bad?  I call it compromise.  You call it trade-off.  We all call it growing pains.

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So, here’s a scenario. You, single, lookin to meet someone. You’re perusing the offerings at Match.com when you come across an attractive stranger whose specs are all to your liking. Then, let’s say, he describes himself: “Big Ol Failure!”

…I’m guessing you’d pass?

You’d hardly be alone. Success, after all, is a virtue in our world; failure, something to be ashamed of.

But. A new book says that, “in a complex world, the process of trial and error is essential.” The book, written by Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, is called “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.” And while the book is business-leaning, the point–that it’s the mistakes that beget the great successes–seems pretty applicable to Life In General.

Of course, failure’s scary. But, without it, what is life? If we’re here to learn, to change, to grow, to discover who we are and what we want to do with ourselves while we’re here, well–all of those things involve taking steps into the unknown. And, like someone wandering an unfamiliar town, we’re likely to take a couple missteps. We may even fall flat on our collective face. But, with every stumble, every accidental dead-end, we get a little bit clearer about the road we do want to follow.

Makes sense–but then, it’s easy to speak in metaphor. It’s a lot harder to cut ourselves that kind of slack in our actual lives. We’d prefer to never get fired, dumped, disappointed, bored, scared, angry, or lost again. But I feel pretty certain that we will. (Admit it, you know I’m right.) After all, in a way, our mistakes are our lives. They’re certainly every bit as significant as our successes.

And so imagine if we weren’t so tied to the outcomes of the things we try. When we’re making the big decisions of our lives, what if our ego didn’t give a shit whether we’d come out on top? What if we chose to believe that there are no right or wrong decisions, only choices that we’ll live with? What if we realized that failure might, in fact, be inevitable–and went for it anyway? It reminds me of this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert that I wrote about some time ago:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing them the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

In medicine, doctors make diagnoses by ruling things out. Seems a pretty sane approach in life, too, doncha think? I mean, maybe I’m wrong about all this. In which case… great! I’ll try something else tomorrow.


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Clearly on the extreme is the most recent string of pols abusing their, ahem, position.  First up, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fathered a child over ten years ago with one of his housekeepers.  As in someone who for 20 years worked inside his home, where he lived with his wife and kids.  Ugh.

And then there’s IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, reputed to be the heir apparent of Nicolas Sarkozy.  Strauss-Kahn is currently being held without bail in Riker’s Island for chasing a maid around his suite in a Manhattan hotel while wearing no pants.  Or anything else, for that matter.  And oh yes.  He sexually assaulted her.  And by the way, have you seen a picture of this guy?

What I keep wondering is what makes these men with power — simply the latest in a long string of pols who couldn’t keep their pants on — think they can get away with this stuff.  (Can you imagine Hillary Clinton, for example, chasing around a bellhop?)  Oh, wait.  Did I just answer my own question?

What I think is that it has to do with entitlement.  And it goes a lot deeper — and it’s much more pervasive — than the shenanigans of a bunch of horny old men.  Shannon, in fact, went there Tuesday in her post about Bridesmaids, where she wrote that in our culture, “everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female.”  In other words, we girls are still seen as outside the norm:

It’s an issue we dissect pretty thoroughly in the book. And it’s all yet another reason why so many women are so damn undecided: yes, we’ve been told we can do anything… but the world continues to show us that we should probably stifle certain parts of ourselves to get to the point where we can do it. That we’re the fringe, lucky to be allowed to play in the men’s world.

Yep.  We’ve got all the doors open — we can be doctors or lawyers or comedy writers or anything else — but those doors still open up into the old boy’s network, where the structures were designed by and for men and where, at the worst extreme, guys with power think they can get away with running around without their pants.  Okay, that’s a metaphor, but you get the picture, right?  (Or maybe you would rather not.)  Cue the power differential, and guess where that leaves us.

Maureen Dowd went there, in a column about the coming season of network TV shows that feature Playboy bunnies, a Charlie’s Angels remake, and a show about sixties-era stewardesses “harking back to the good old days when women didn’t sit in first class, they simply served the men who did..”  Okay, barf.  Dowd points out that there are still some strong women featured on the small screen, but, she writes:

… Hollywood is a world ruled by men, and this season, amid economic anxieties, those men want to indulge in some retro fantasies about hot, subservient babes.

“It’s the Hendricks syndrome,” said one top male TV producer here. “All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on ‘Mad Men’ and fell in love. It’s a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don’t go away.”

A top female entertainment executive says “it’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional roles of dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

But have things changed so much?  College degrees and fat paychecks notwithstanding, we’re clearly not in charge.  If we were, would primetime really be centered around pointy bras, cinched waists and puffy cottontails?

Our last word comes from uber-feminist Roseanne Barr who, in a scathing New York Magazine essay spills it all on how she got screwed by Hollywood in the first year of her award-winning sitcom — and reminds us how much things have not changed.  She writes of how she had her ideas and jokes stolen out from under her by her producer, Marcy Carsey, and writer Matt Williams, who was credited with creating the series, even though it was based on her fierce Domestic Goddess, a character she’d created doing stand-up for eight years in “dive clubs and biker bars.”  And what she learned that first year was this:

It was pretty clear that no one really cared about the show except me, and that Matt and Marcy and ABC had nothing but contempt for me—someone who didn’t show deference, didn’t keep her mouth shut, didn’t do what she was told. Marcy acted as if I were anti-feminist by resisting her attempt to steal my whole life out from under me. I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I’ve come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren’t powerful men, for that matter, either—unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn’t.

Which leads us back to where we started.  Entitlement and where it leaves us.  In this case, writes Barr, it’s at the feet of Charlie Sheen.

Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in, and I would tell you how I did it, but then I would have to kill you. Based on Two and a Half Men’s success, it seems viewers now prefer their comedy dumb and sexist. Charlie Sheen was the world’s most famous john, and a sitcom was written around him. That just says it all. Doing tons of drugs, smacking prostitutes around, holding a knife up to the head of your wife—sure, that sounds like a dream come true for so many guys out there, but that doesn’t make it right! People do what they can get away with (or figure they can), and Sheen is, in fact, a product of what we call politely the “culture.”

And there you go.  We wonder where naked old men get the idea that it’s okay to chase a chambermaid around a hotel room, or why studio heads, as Shannon wrote, who believe “that one half of the population thinks seeing a movie about women will somehow cost them their balls” always get their way.

The answer is simple.  Because they can.

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And watch us cry. But first: the laughing. Have you seen ‘Bridesmaids’ yet? (And were you aware that doing so is your feminist duty?) I did, and would heartily recommend it. It’s hilarious, well-written, and good. But people weren’t expecting much from it; Deadline Hollywood’s Nikki Finke said she’d give up writing about movies if it cracked the $20 million mark on its opening weekend. Which it did. But that it did was clearly a surprise. Here are some words from Rebecca Traister on the movement to mobilize female moviegoers:

Yes we can… buy tickets to a Kristen Wiig movie in an effort to persuade Hollywood that multidimensional women exist, spend money and deserve to be represented on film.

What’s motivating this campaign is simple: Hollywood studios do not make comedies for or about women anymore. Yes, they used to….

Those days are long gone, and we now inhabit an entertainment universe in which everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female (yes, this dynamic extends into publishing, politics and professionalism, but for now, let’s keep it to Hollywood). What that means in practical terms is that women will plonk down dollars to see a male-dominated action movie, a girl-gobbling horror flick, or a dude-centric comedy just as easily as they’ll pay for the kind of female-fueled movie that is literally made for them. Men, meanwhile, have apparently been so conditioned to find anything female emasculating (notwithstanding the expectation that their girlfriends find anything male, including ‘Thor,’ scintillating) that they cannot be moved to sit through any movie with a fully developed woman at its center. As Tad Friend recently put it in his New Yorker profile of the actress Anna Faris–in a sentence mentioned frequently by ‘Bridesmaids’ activists–‘Studio executives believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.’

Traister’s piece is a fabulous read, but I’m going to leave the Bridesmaids behind for a minute, and move on to mother-of-the-bride territory. In the form of Hillary Clinton. In Anne Doyle’s Forbes piece entitled “Women Are Not ‘Guys’ and Men Are Not the ‘Norm’,” Doyle lays out a couple of examples of the same issue Traister views through the cinematic lens–the idea that, in our culture, everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female.

And, in this case, wrong, and in need of spinning. And what is this case, you ask? A shot of Obama’s Situation Room featuring the members of his inner circle watching the Bin Laden raid go down–crazy shit, all might agree–in which Hillary Clinton is shown expressing emotion (although, if you ask me, pretty subdued emotion), her hand over her mouth.

The bad news is the ridiculous angst the photo triggered over the gender differences it captured. The men were stone-faced, revealing little. It was only the expression and body language of the most powerful woman in our nation that most clearly communicated the tension, high stakes, and yes, even fears that every leader in the room was experiencing. No surprise there. We socialize men and women to express emotions very differently.

But here’s the astonishing part. After the now-iconic image was released, Clinton, whose hand was raised to her mouth in the photo, felt she needed to explain the gesture by telling media she was ‘trying not to cough’ at the instant the photo was taken. Are we still that uncomfortable with powerful women behaving like women rather than ‘men in skirts’ that even she needs to spin her actions that deviate from the male norm? And since when is the behavior of only fifty percent of the human race ‘the norm’?

It reminds me of the story Charlotta Kratz wrote about here:

Women may be equal to men professionally, but we could never talk publicly about personal female experiences the way men talk about personal, private, male experiences (like the relationship between a man and his son) in public.

The experience of being a man is of common interest. The experience of being a woman is not.

It’s an issue we dissect pretty thoroughly in the book. And it’s all yet another reason why so many women are so damn undecided: yes, we’ve been told we can do anything… but the world continues to show us that we should probably stifle certain parts of ourselves to get to the point where we can do it. That we’re the fringe, lucky to be allowed to play in the men’s world. And that’s a shame for everyone–not least because those parts of us that we stifle might actually be sources of great, beneficial value–were individuals and the culture at large encouraged to indulge them. (And, I’m sorry, let’s not forget that this grand world we’ve created has studio heads believing that one half of the population thinks seeing a movie about women will somehow cost them their balls. This is a good thing?) But maybe things are changing. Bridesmaids was brilliant and pulled in $26.2M it’s first weekend. (I hasten to add: only $8.5M less than ‘Thor.’ Ahem, Barf.)


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Despite what we would like to think, life is not a multiple choice, scan-tron type of affair.  And sometimes, everywhere you look, something reminds you that choices and decisions are much more complicated than either/or.  Two cases in point, in case you’ve missed them:

First up, a Mother’s Day op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times by Stephanie Coonz.  If you recognize the name, it’s because she’s the author of 2005’s groundbreaking “Marriage: A History” and the newly released “A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”  What she had to say was this:  that archetype of the happy — and saintly — stay-at-home mom?  It never was.  In fact, she points out, until quite recently, mom was pretty much villified, her social status in the dumpster until Betty Friedan came around.  So that whole debate about the mommy wars?  Put it to rest.

Coonz’ research has found that, really, whether you stay at home or work outside it, your happiness —  and your family’s too — is all about the choice.  There’s more, but here’s the take-away:

These findings suggest that it is time to stop arguing over who has things worse or who does things better, stay-at-home mothers or employed mothers. Instead, we should pay attention to women’s preferences and options.

Feminism has also fostered increased respect for men’s ability and desire to be involved parents. So we should also pay attention to expanding men’s ability to choose greater involvement in family life, just as we have expanded women’s ability to choose greater involvement in meaningful work.

While stay-at-home mothers may not have the aura of saintliness with which they were endowed in the 19th century, it’s indisputable that their status and lives have improved since their supposed heyday in the 1950s. On this Mother’s Day, it’s too bad that nostalgia for a golden age of motherhood that never existed still clouds our thinking about what’s best for mothers, fathers and their children.

And then there’s this.  The current shitstorm over the “SlutWalks” that are taking place across the nation — and beyond.  Sparked by a Toronto police officer who told a bunch of college women that they could avoid being raped if they didn’t dress like sluts, women have been marching in their underwear to protest his message.  I get the anger against blaming the victim — just not the underwear.  But I do like what salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory had to say about this whole either-or issue.  A slut or a prude?  She votes neither, and wonders why it has to be one or the other:

I’m tired of the polarizing rhetoric: Are you a prude or a slut? You know what, I’m neither. I understand the concept of re-appropriating slurs, and that many people find it freeing and empowering. Also, political discourse doesn’t exactly lend itself to nuance and subtlety, so shocking slogans can be tremendously effective. On a personal level, though, this kind of reactive language can feel awfully limiting. I’m not a political caricature, and neither is my sexuality.

… So while it’s kick-ass that so many women are proudly calling themselves sluts, I’d also like to defend the prudes, and those of us who would rather toss out those reductive categories altogether. The conversation really starts to get interesting when you say: I’m not a prude, but I’m not a slut; I’m ____

Choices, all of them, and never quite as clear as they seem.

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So Mother’s Day is coming up.  And what I really want to say out of the gate is that I once had a mom, and she was the absolute best.  And I am a mom, and I have loved every second of it.  Still do.

That said:  I debated writing about the media perceptions of moms.  You know, the greeting cards, where we are all perceived as saintly (but slightly out of touch).  Or the TV and movie stereotypes where, most of the time, we are portrayed as over-bearing and annoying.

Or, given the Mother’s Day emails that have no doubt flown into your inbox this week:  we prefer brunch to dinner; our fashion sense could best be described as “mom jeans”: or, what the hell, what we really want out of life are scented candles you can buy in a Hallmark store.

I could go on.  But what I really want to write about is time.  Because that’s what we women need, whether we happen to be mothers now, or ever were, or may or may not ever plan to be one.

We’ve been fed the message since most of us were little girls: We can have it all!  We can do everything!  We can do anything!  But the reality is that, until workplace and societal structures change, we absolutely cannot.   At least, not at the same time.  And yet, we believe.  And so we make ourselves crazy in the trying.

Partly the idea comes from the media that feeds us with images of beautiful movie stars who have babies then return to work a few months later, skinny and vibrant as ever, and smooching with a new leading man.  We watch TV shows and movies that lead us to believe that we can/should be killer career women, cupcake-baking mommies, svelte and sexy vixens, and with granite kitchens to boot.   But what the media rarely shows are the freak-outs when the kids are up all night with croup — or the full time nannies and housekeepers who manage it all — or the days when we have  an impossible deadline and, oh yeah, there’s nothing in the refrigerator but junk that’s long past its expiration date.   And fun?  Had any lately?

And yet, we try to manage it all, thinking we can and that we should.  Smiling all the while.

The problem is, we’ve been sucked into a workplace that was designed by and for men — guys with someone at home to take care of business.  And that someone, sisters, has traditionally been us.  Men can go full-speed ahead with their careers if the little woman takes charge of the second shift. But who lives like that anymore?  With two high-level careers, it becomes very difficult to manage a household, much less a family, without a lot of outside help, or without one of the partners stepping off the career ladder.  Even given a good day care situation:  exactly how does someone with a killer career get to the day care center before it closes at 5 or 6?

And so, here’s what I think:  The greatest mother’s day gift of all — for all of us, men or women, and whether we happen to have kids or ever will —  might have to do with the clock.  The stark reality is that, given the American workplace, where the 40 hour week is defined as 52, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Or in fact, the year.  Take a look at this chart, which graphs the amount of time that various countries allow for mandatory paid time off:

Austria tops the chart at 30 days per year.  The U.S?  None.  As in, not one.

So on this Mother’s Day, let’s work for change, shall we?  And, rather than smile through breakfast in bed, let’s shout: Until “work-life balance” is defined as more than work at work/work at home balance; until workplace structures adjust to accommodate the realities of two-career families; and until women are no longer assumed to be responsible for the second shirt, something has to give.

And wouldn’t that be the best Mother’s Day gift of all?  Smells a hell of a lot better than a Hallmark candle.  At least, if you ask me.

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