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Archive for August, 2011

Ahead of September’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It”–a movie based on Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel about the realities of life as a working mother, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as the harried “She” in question–this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine ran a story about the film’s screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, whose other credits include “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Morning Glory,” and “27 Dresses.” 27 Dresses aside, McKenna’s films represent a new guard. As writer Susan Dominus puts it,

McKenna makes romantic comedies in which the romance is not so much between a woman and the perfect man but a woman and the perfect career.

…McKenna’s solution to romantic-comedy fatigue is not to ironize the genre or make fun of its characters’ (and therefore its audience’s) quests for fulfillment, but to give them what they want: a great guy and a great job, a happy family and professional success.

…McKenna plays out, in a frothy, mass-market format, the fantasies promised by ’70s feminism: that you can have a big career without sacrificing a personal life.

Which begs the question: to what extent is the idea of having it all a fantasy? And, in the same way fairy tales are demonized for conditioning little girls to expect some Prince Charming to appear and “rescue” them, can a frothy portrayal of a woman charmingly overcoming the struggles associated with having both a great job and a happy family cause us to expect that sort of juggling act to be easier than it really is? Does it prompt us to pile more onto our plates, to toss more balls into the air, to beat ourselves up more, when our job or our family isn’t the stuff of a summer blockbuster and we still have trouble managing it all?

Interestingly, in the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” the protagonist ultimately gives up her high-powered job in favor of a part-time gig that allows her more time with her kids. But McKenna opted to change that:

She decides instead to test the boundaries and carve out a better personal life while keeping her full-time job. (Another fantasy: Work-life balance, with no professional cost.)

A fantasy as dreamy as any Prince Charming. On the other hand, do such tales represent a step forward? After all, an ambitious–if naive–journalist’s attempts to succeed at “the job a million girls would kill for,” or the story of the daily struggles that comprise a working woman’s life–well, they’re infinitely more relatable than, say, Cinderella. Women today were raised with big dreams. Why should we–or our big-screen counterparts–give them up?

The thing is, though, in chasing them down, I’d venture to say most of us have found ourselves juggling. Most of us have likely found that juggle a little crazy-making, too. Most of us have probably worried that we could do better, more. Most of us have likely wondered if we’re measuring up.

And most of us have likely found that there’s no such thing as having it all. So maybe the happiest ending is in a contented acceptance of that. Maybe the new-new happily ever after looks more like happily chucking that ideal, once and for all.

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When the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn was dismissed on Tuesday, it occurred to me that what we had in front of us was a good metaphor for one of the tawdry underbellies of American life.

Call it the power of privilege — the unacknowledged advantages that permeate so many layers of our public, and not so public, lives.

I’m not here to argue the merits of the case, or to rant about the legal system. We are, in fact, a family that is lousy with attorneys. On any given day, you can’t walk down the hall without bumping elbows with one. On Thanksgiving, we joke about replacing the kids’ table with a lawyers’ table.

But this is essentially a case of he-said, she-said, right? Of parties whose closets apparently hold more than a couple of skeletons. So our thought question for today is this: Why is Strauss-Kahn, a powerful white male, who asserts that the sex was consensual, more believable than Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid who fled her native Guinea for asylum in the U.S., who says she was raped?

And why has Diallo’s background cast doubt on her story when our erstwhile defendant’s past is equally checkered? As Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote on Tuesday:

A woman who gets intoxicated can be raped. Prostitutes can be raped. And a poor woman who has told lies can be raped. In fact, it is often the women who “don’t make good victims” who are most at risk because they are the most vulnerable, and it is these women who are least likely to be listened to.

I confess I know no more about the case itself than do any of you, and I am willing to admit that it’s possible that there was no criminal case to be made. But – evidence notwithstanding apologies to the attorneys in the family– I still wonder about the larger issue, which is this: All things being equal, why is it that the scales always tend to tip in favor of privilege?

One of the worst aspects of privilege, whether in the courtroom or the workplace, is that those who have it tend not to notice. What’s second-worst is that, because of the above, privilege tends to perpetuate itself.

Back in 1989, Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, wrote a pivotal paper entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In the paper, she listed the contents of that knapsack, a collection of invisible “privileges” she enjoyed by virtue of her race – from being able to buy or rent a home wherever she wanted to being assured that when she’s pulled over for a traffic stop, it’s not because of the color of her skin.

Her point, derived from her work in women’s studies, was this. While those with privilege may be willing to admit that those without it are indeed disadvantaged, what they don’t seem to notice is the other side of the coin: doors automatically open for some folks simply because of their skin color – or their gender.

As McIntosh noted, it’s a source of power and advantage that is largely unearned. And it automatically puts many of us on the other side of the power divide. That includes women, even when we enjoy the privileges of race. Need a refresher? We make less money than our male counterparts. We’re often stymied on our way up the corporate ladder simply because of something related specifically to our gender: motherhood – or in some cases, lack of same. And then there’s the workplace itself, which is still structured around the outdated concept of the ideal employee, who can put in the 52 hour workweek, secure in the knowledge that there is someone at home to take care of business.

We’ll stop there.

My point, at least today, is not to vent about the inherent inequities – but to suggest that we start paying attention to the power that some folks hold through no fault of their own. Which brings us back to the case at hand.

Diallo has filed a civil suit against Strauss-Kahn, whose attorney has announced that Strauss-Kahn is considering a lawsuit of his own because he has suffered “enormous damages.”

Should both lawsuits see their day in court, let’s lay some odds, shall we? Who do you think is likely to prevail?

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This just in, ladies: Balancing a job and a family is hard! And, a recent study out of the University of Washington shows, the less difficult you expect it to be, the more likely you are to be depressed  when the rubber meets the road–when your expectations smack up against reality.

Color us unshocked.

The trouble, the study suggests, has as much to do with our own expectations as it does with a workplace that’s still designed as though every employee had the benefit of a full-time wife at home, someone to take care of the kids… and all of the day-to-day business that keeps a life running smoothly. Not insignificant: American women are attempting to do it all in a country with rather dismal structural support for working mothers, in terms of time off after childbirth or subsidized day care. And as real–and important–as those issues are, there’s more to it that that.

Women today are raised being told they can have it all, though rarely are they let in on the way this charming slogan translates to the real world–as if through an evil game of telephone–that, more than likely, they’ll have to do it all, that what they’ll really have “all” of is the work. We’re raised to believe that feminism is old news, the fight has been fought, the battle won–even while we’re presented with an ideal so impossible it would be laughable, if it weren’t so oppressive: while the Enjoli woman of yore was intimidating enough with her bacon and her pan, today the ideal has even more balls in the air: in addition to raising her children perfectly (and feeding them only organic bacon) and making the most of her potential at the office, she’s untouched by the hands of time, doing work that’s deeply satisfying and meaningful for the world at large, finding personal and spiritual fulfillment and capable of a perfect downward-facing dog.

All of which is not to say that women are better off staying at home; to the contrary, in fact. Stay-at-home moms were more likely to be depressed than working moms. So how to handle it? The researchers of the study suggest that the best way to deal is to “Be gentle with yourself and accept that balancing work and family feels hard because it is hard, rather than feeling guilty or unsuccessful if you can’t devote as much time as you would like to your job and to your family.”

And we’d agree. As Ramini Durvasula, PhD–a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles–told us when we spoke to her for our book, “What I want to communicate to young women is, ‘You can try many of these things, but there are going to be challenges. If you think you’re going to be able to screw your husband, raise your kids, clean your house and go to work, you’re mistaken. You’re going to have a messy house, an unscrewed husband, kids you’re not always with, and a job you can’t always do.”

Or, from a write-up on the study in U.S. News & World Report, “working moms may be happier when they delegate and let a few things slide — in other words, let someone with more time run the bake sale, make sure your husband is doing his share of the laundry folding and limit your work hours when you can.”

And we’d add to that: every choice entails a trade-off. If you’re reading this article right now, you are by definition not frying up organic bacon in a pan, or baking a batch of gluten-free cupcakes for the kids’ school fundraiser, right? To hear that we can’t do it all is, at first blush, an ugly message, but it’s also freeing in its simplicity: you can’t be in two places at once. So perhaps in addition to doing what we can to change the structural roadblocks, we should be doing what we can to address those expectations, revamp that slogan, and cut ourselves some slack.

A tough message, but according to this study, it seems that your happiness might be riding on accepting it.

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So I came across a post over at BNET the other day that suggests that our high school selves sometimes come back to kick us in the pocketbook when it comes to our careers.   According to business writer Jeff Haden, our professional lives are “like high school with money.” But what might have led to acceptance by the mean girls back in the day can actually be disastrous out in the business world.

He points out that the survival skills we learned when we were fifteen sometimes stick with us when we’re thirty – or beyond — and they rarely end well.  You can guess the ones: Looking to the wrong folks for advice; doing what everyone else is doing because, well, everyone else is doing it; making decisions based on the “shoulds”;  and caring far too much about what other people think.  All these patterns, he writes, can be roadblocks when it comes to building a professional life.

His point, in a nutshell:  For good or for ill, most of us got it wrong in high school.  And yet, old habits die hard.  All of which got us to pondering:  Do our high school selves mess with more than the corporate ladder?  Are our grown-up perceptions still colored by the girls we once were?

For many of us, life took an abrupt left turn once adolescence reared its awkward head. Maybe we were one of the cool kids. Maybe we were irretrievably dorky. In either case, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. So silly. And yet.

You have to wonder how much of that insecure self stays with us into adulthood, whispering in our ear, making us second guess our decisions, and nudging us to replay those invisible patterns etched long ago. Are we still looking for approval from erstwhile best friends? Is there a part of us that still wants to please the arbiters of ninth grade taste — or show them up? Hello there, mean girls! Take a look at me now!

Didn’t matter whether we were beauty or brains – or none of the above; the prom queen or the wallflower; whether we were picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II.  Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep therein, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we perceived ourselves back in the day.  And what we wonder is this:  Did we every outgrow that awkward adolescent? Has she left an indelible mark on our iconic self?

Is she part and parcel of the master narrative we sometimes use to frame our lives?

Don’t get us wrong. Painful or not, high school was a pivotal time. After all, a lot of serious developmental stuff goes down during those formative years, and chief among that work is individuation – figuring out our identity, defining ourselves apart from our parents.  It’s a search that leads us logically toward our peers, with this one nasty byproduct: we tend to see ourselves as others see us.

Or, worse yet, the way we think that others see us.

Sure, men are subject to this process, too, but here’s where it’s different for women.  We’re hard-wired – or maybe socialized — to please.  (Nature or nurture, who cares?)  Which is why we listened to those imaginary whispers when we were in high school – and sometimes do it still.  We see ourselves through others’ eyes.  We judge ourselves by others’ judging.  And we ask ourselves:  Do we measure up?  Do we fit in?

You have to wonder if this is one more reason why decisions are so loaded for women, especially when we’re trying to figure out what to do with our lives.  Could this be why we’re always lusting after that greener grass?  Why we have such a hard time figuring out what we want?

All of which leads us back to where we started.  We can’t help thinking this lingering desire to fit in impacts women more than men, especially as we navigate the somewhat unfamiliar turf of today’s workplace. Because we are unsure of the rules, do we take reactions more seriously? Are we more tentative?  Continually looking over our shoulder to make sure those whispers in the corner aren’t about us? Worse yet, do we avoid even putting ourselves out there, sticking with Mr. Safe Path, so we can avoid the risk of rejection?

Good questions, right?  But meanwhile, even as I type this, I hear a tragic little ninth grader – the one with the bad hair and the big glasses — whispering in my ear: What will (choose one) think? To which the only grown-up answer is: Who cares. Because while we may assume we’re being judged, more often than not, the only one who’s doing the judging is our high school self.

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If a feminist worries over her worry lines, frets over getting fat, or lusts after lipstick… but there’s no one around to witness it, can she still call herself a feminist?

They’re questions we all ponder at one time or another, I suppose. Is buying Spanx buying into an oppressive ideal? Does dabbling in fillers make one a tool of the patriarchy? Does plunking down your VISA at the MAC counter mean you’ve forfeited your feminist card? Who among us hasn’t felt that guilt, that shame, keeping your head down while silently praying no one spots you–enlightened, intelligent, feminist you–shelling out fifty bucks for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn’t wondered: Are a touch of vanity and an ethos of empowerment mutually exclusive?

Sure, maybe we can coast through a couple of decades, smug in our certainty that we’d never stoop so low. And yet. Once we start to age, once it’s our forehead that’s lined, our jawline that’s softened, the tug-of-war becomes urgent. As Anna Holmes, founder of the pop-feminist website Jezebel, wrote in the Washington Post:

‘Wow. You’re really looking older,’ says the voice in my head as I peer into the bathroom mirror. Then another, this one louder and more judgmental: ‘Who are you that you care?’

Who am I indeed. The fact that I can be so profoundly unsettled by the appearance of a few wrinkles on my forehead doesn’t say much of anything good about my sense of self as a whole. In the same way that I’m sort of horrified at the increasingly unrecognizable face that stares back at me in the mirror, I’m equally unsettled that I’m horrified at all.

Who couldn’t relate? Internal debating (and berating) aside, though, the thing I’m left thinking about is how much this sounds like yet another false dichotomy. Virgin/whore, pretty/smart, plastic/natural, young/irrelevant. As though a woman can be either a gray-haired intellectual frump or a Botoxed blond bimbo, as though there were nothing in between. As though any person could be so simply defined. One or the other. If one, then not the other.

While my fear of needles (and, well, poison) precludes me from even considering Botox, I have no problem admitting that some of the hairs on my head have gone rogue (by which I mean gray)–and that I pay someone good money to make it look otherwise. I happily incur the expense of continued education, and of shoes. I giggle, and I engage in heated intellectual debates. I spend time pondering the meaning of life–and the size of my pores. I proudly call myself a feminist, and, yes, I shave my legs. What box do I fit into?

Perhaps the goal is not to worry so much over what one decision means for the label we’ve happily slapped upon ourselves, but to realize that a label is only part of the story. Maybe the goal is to forego the labels altogether, to open our minds, broaden our thinking, be a little more forgiving of ourselves, a little more accepting of each other–and do something a little more productive with all that reclaimed time and brainspace. Or perhaps the goal is simply to remember to think outside the box.

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A new study by University of Buffalo sociologists suggests the answer is yes, indeed. This may be well-tread territory, but we think we need to go there anyway.  One reason is what we call the “tyranny of the shoulds.”

The study, entitled “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone“, will be published in the September issue of the journal Sexuality & Culture. The researchers, Erin Hatton, PhD, and Mary Nell Trautner, PhD, analyzed covers of Rolling Stone Magazine over the past three decades and what they found was that “sexualized representations of both women and men increased, and hypersexualized images of women (but not men) skyrocketed.” They chose Rolling Stone, in particular, because of its long lifespan and because its covers have featured a broad mix of pop culture icons — from celebrities to politicians — of both genders. According to the University of Buffalo News Center, here’s what they had to say about their findings:

“In the 2000s,” Hatton says, “there were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women.”

“What we conclude from this is that popular media outlets such as Rolling Stone are not depicting women as sexy musicians or actors; they are depicting women musicians and actors as ready and available for sex. This is problematic,” Hatton says, “because it indicates a decisive narrowing of media representations of women.

“We don’t necessarily think it’s problematic for women to be portrayed as ‘sexy.’ But we do think it is problematic when nearly all images of women depict them not simply as ‘sexy women’ but as passive objects for someone else’s sexual pleasure.”

The problem, the authors write, is that this hypersexuality dominates the cultural representation of what it means to be a woman today. And you’d better believe that hurts us all. Because as much as we claim otherwise, the media often becomes another way by which we measure ourselves. Sure, we know all about photo-shopping and air-brushing, and we know it’s not real. But still: much as we try not to, we buy into what is presented as a cultural norm.

In their study, the authors cite a large body of research that has shown a link between sexualized portrayals of women and violence against them, as well as garden-variety sexual harrassment and, in some men, neanderthal attitudes toward women.  They cite studies that show that media images of impossibly perfect and hypersexy women also increase the rates of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction and that such images are also linked to an increase in teen sex.  Finally — cruel blow — the authors reference a number of studies that have linked hypersexy images to decreased sexual satisfaction among women as well as men. Scary, right?

Sure, those may be worst-case scenarios. But at the very least, there’s this: when we are bombarded by increasingly sexualized images peeking out at us from every newstand and/or iPad, another bullet point goes onto the “should” list. You know what we mean: There are the big bad societal shoulds, of course, and there are also the shoulds you hear in your best friends’ voices, your mom’s, your significant other’s. TV and magazines remind us we should be thinner and happier — and apparently, smoking hot as well.

We may call every bit of it out as unholy nonsense, but still, is there a part of us, deep inside, that believes that this is what it means to be a woman today? To Have It All?

Back in the day, the archetype for the woman who “had it all” was exemplified by the ad campaign for Enjoli, which billed itself as the “eight-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman.” The classic seventies-era television commercial featured a woman who morphed from housewife to businesswoman to sex kitten wife, all the while singing: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you’re a man, cause I’m a woman.”

An impossibly ridiculous role model, from any number of aspects. But let’s look at just one thing. She was pictured in a bathrobe, a business suit, and finally — as the sexy chick — in a high-necked evening gown that exposed nothing but her arms. We can’t help wondering what, if anything, she’d be wearing if that ad were made today.

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Fast in the wake of the success of “Mad Men”, TV’s retro series on the advertising industry circa 1965, come two new period series for the fall season:  “The Playboy Club” on NBC and “Pan Am” on ABC.

What these two new series have in common is the insistence by their producers that when you eliminate the girdles, the cleavage and the bunny dips, the shows are really about women’s empowerment. That sound you hear is the two of us choking on our morning Starbucks. Let’s review: Women called Bunnies, wearing rabbit ears and cotton tails, and stewardesses subjected to regular weigh-ins and tight undergarments? Both the subjects of drooling men? This is Hollywood’s vision of empowered women?

Don’t get us wrong.  We like Mad Men as much as the next sixties geeks.  And we are the first to admit that the men of Sterling Cooper are hideously misogynistic. But the women — Peggy, who pushed her way to become the firm’s first woman copywriter, and Joan, often the brains of the outfit — make their way with their smarts rather than their sexuality.

Back to these new shows:  we see a difference between a period piece that portrays the way things were for women — versus the proclamation that what looks like heavy-duty sexism is really female empowerment.

What it really is is backlash.

“The Playboy Club” (Tagline: Where men hold the key but women run the show) revolves around a bunny who becomes involved with a high-powered attorney who gets her out of a jam. “Pan Am” (Tagline: They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet) is about the glory days of air travel, when pilots were Men-with-a-capital-M and stewardesses were every businessman’s, um, fantasy.

Both shows have come up against intense criticism (Making for an unusual alliance between feminists and conservatives, an NBC affiliate in Utah has refused to air “The Playboy Club” and feminist icon Gloria Steinem has called for a boycott of the show.), which has led to ridiculous statements by the two shows’ producers.  Here’s one, via the Contra Costa Times, from “The Playboy Club” producer, Chad Hodge.

“The show is all about empowerment and who these women can be, and how they can use the club to be anyone they want,” Chad Hodge told critics.

Enough said.  And from the producers of “Pan Am”, via TV/Line:

Exec producer Nancy Holt Ganis — who herself was a Pan Am stewardess during the era depicted in the show — explains that this is what life was actually like for these women, who were admirably regarded as “hostesses at a dinner party… a movable feast.”

“Part of the irony of the profession [is] these are college-educated women who [often] spoke multiple languages,” says [creator/producer Jack] Orman, and yet they we still subjected to physical scrutiny to land the job. Says EP Thomas Schlamme, “For me, the show could be called The Best Years of Our Lives, because for those people, at that moment, that what this is. And that’s what the show’s about.”

Really? We’d prefer to give the last words to Gloria Steinem, who might heartily disagree.  Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy Bunny during the 1960s for a magazine expose, is the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary entitled “Gloria: In Her Own Words” and at the Summer TV Press Tour, she was asked her thoughts about these two new shows.  Here’s what she said, according to the Washington Post:

“Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward? Somehow I think the shows are not doing that,” Steinem said, noting wryly that when times get tough, the “white male response” tends to swing to either sadomasochism — or nostalgia.

Recently, she told Reuters that the Playboy Club was “the tackiest place on earth”:

When I was working there and writing the expose, one of the things they had to change because of my expose was that they required all the Bunnies, who were just waitresses, to have an internal exam and a test for venereal disease,” she said.

Earlier, in an interview for the current issue of Interview Magazine, Maria Shriver asked Steinem whether she was glad she had done the playboy expose in the first place.  She said that at first she wasn’t, and in fact returned an advance she’d received for turning the magazine piece into a book.  But ultimately, she said:

.. feminism did make me realize that I was glad I did it–because I identified with all the women who ended up an underpaid waitress in too-high heels and  a costume that was too tight to breathe in. Most were just trying to make a living and had no other way of doing it. I’d made up a background as a secretary, and the woman who interviewed me asked, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?” In the sense that we’re all identified too much by our outsides instead of our insides and are mostly in underpaid service jobs, I realized we’re all Bunnies–so yes, I’m glad I did it.

She didn’t mention whether she felt empowered when she was doing the bunny dip.  We suspect her answer would have been no.

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