Not-So-Vintage Sexism

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Courtesy Digital Sextant

Sexism is everywhere. We constantly see images, hear phrases, and read words that disrespect, demean, or undermine women. What’s scary is that many women are taught to believe that sexism is a thing of the past. That is is vaulted and sealed up with ancient black and white images of housewives beaming phony smiles over a pot roast. But is sexism really so ancient? Or have we just been conditioned into accepting sexism into our lives?

There is a short and easy answer to this leading question and that is a simple “no”, sexism is not a thing of the past. And within our ever evolving social media world, conditioning is inevitable because this media content (images, video, sound, celebrity gossip) is omnipresent.

One recalls the exceedingly ridiculous amount of sexism employed against Hillary Clinton throughout the 2008 Primary Election. Everything from Clinton’s dress to her voice were criticized, and in a Primary where examples of sexism and racism played out in the media, it was evident that sexism is still very much an inequality within our society.

Or think back to the backlash Kristin Stewart received after admitting to an affair with her married director, Rupert Sanders. The married Sanders, was hardly slammed as hard as Stewart in the tabloids.

Fortunately, we have organizations like Women’s Media Center, that are dedicated to fighting sexism in the media. Founded in 2005 by Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan as a non-profit progressive women’s media organization, WMC aims to make women visible and powerful within the media. The organization also employs media campaigns to hold individuals and other organizations accountable for sexist behavior.

Media is great space where we can start to reshape the images of women portrayed in the media, as well as bring into existence new images of women who challenge sexist ideals (transgender, LGBTQ, and women of color). It is equally important to bring this challenging work into the physical, public sphere to broaden our awareness of everyday sexism and fight to end the conditioning and socialized sexism within our communities.

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In and Out of the Blogosphere

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Courtesy digitalrob70

Over the recent years, blogging has become a tool for marginalized individuals who wish to connect and identify with those similar, as well as utilize the blogosphere as a space to promote advocacy and change. The speed with which the internet can reach individuals and gather information is unlike any tool we have worked with in the past. But has the internet been able to democratize and promote advocacy in the public sphere? Are we collectively moving as fast as the internet and recognizing cyberspace as a legitimate space for advocacy and change?

In her work The Reality of Virtual Reality: The Internet and Gender Equality Advocacy in Latin America, author Elisabeth Jay Friedman examines ways in which the internet can democratize gender equality advocacy in Latin America. Friedman explores the lived experiences of those individuals utilizing the internet to promote social change and illustrates the importance of both boundaries and structure to determine the effects the internet has on advocacy communities. “The term boundaries refers to questions of inclusion and autonomy in civil society. Structure means the ways advocacy gets done: the forms of organization along with the strategies employed in them” (Friedman, 4).

The internet can enhance the way gender advocates work because it promotes a nonhierarchical form of interaction. Queer and trans groups within the LGBTQ community have employed such strategies to advocate for inclusion and advocacy. As Friedman notes, a lesbian feminist group in Mexico City (Lesbians in Collective) distributes information to 150 contacts via a free account. With little to no mainstream media outlets, these groups which Friedman points out are free to advance goals for gender equality and transformation.

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Courtesy Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

But what of the groups who fall into an even smaller marginalized group? If larger demographics, like feminist organizations, struggle to gain equality what does that say for groups consisting of intersex and trans individuals? And how are they using the internet to advocate for change? In her work The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough, Anne Fausto-Sterling explores the complications encountered within Intersex groups. Fausto-Sterling, upon exploring the concept and the history of Intersex individuals, simultaneously imparts knowledge and awareness concerning this issue.

Fausto-Sterling shares stories of advocacy passed on through individuals who have tried to radicalize the medical industry by speaking out against the concept of a two-sex society, shedding light on both the psychological and physical, surgical effects of a two-gendered system. Fausto-Sterling writes: if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature.

Another individual who has sought to radicalize the gender system is Kate Bornstein, a transsexual person who underwent a male-to-female sex change in 1986. Kate dedicates herself to educating others about what she feels is the inherent oppression of a binary gender system which forces individuals to conform to one of only two gender options. As an trans advocate in the blogosphere, Kate uses her blog to impart knowledge, promote her lesbian feminist writings, and connect with a demographic of marginalized individuals.

It is important here to acknowledge the intersections of both the social and medical worlds when advocacting for change amongst marginalized groups. For to gain medical advances (especially for trans and intersex individuals) we must first recognize these individuals within the social sphere. Through blogging and the use of the internet in general strides are being made in the battle for equality. But no matter how fast the cyber world moves, time is needed to counteract generations spent in social oppression.

Patriarchy, Biology and The World of Drag

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Courtesy bjornerlingurfloki

Today when we think of drag, images of fake eyelashes, wigs, glitter and Kylie Minogue rapidly come to mind. But this is the patriarchal world of drag. And yes, regardless of one’s biological sex, a life in drag is not easy – one must walk the fine line of passing within society, either extravagantly like the images above, or quietly as reiterated in the film Paris Is Burning below.

Within the Pop Cultural world, we see superstars like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj adopting drag culture into their larger than life stage personas. We seem to have adopted this playful mentality with the world of drag.  But the overall most “shocking” drag moment of these said artists, was when Lady Gaga performed in male drag during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. Why so shocking?

Beyond the wigs of drag, we enter the dangerous world of trans where things become a little more serious. Here we can start to explore the dynamics and differences between biologically ascribed sexes. Within the film Southern Comfort, we meet a man named Robert who is dying from cervical cancer. Yes, Robert is trans. As Robert discusses his sexual/gender orientation, we see that he does not identify himself as gay but as a heterosexual male. Despite this, Robert was married, had children and even lived as a lesbian in his ascribed self “Barbara” for ten years. But after Robert underwent surgery and started living as “Robert” instead of “Barbara” more than the obvious changed. Robert’s parents grew distant. They didn’t understand why Robert couldn’t just remain female.

While watching the film, I started to think about drag and trans communities in the public sphere, and couldn’t help but notice a sizable imbalance between the biological sexes. Aside from Chaz Bono, there are few biological women turned trans or even drag within the public sphere. Why is this? And could this fall in line with the familiar rhetoric we have heard regarding “wasted femininity”? In the trans community, when a biological woman chooses to become a man, what are the implications of this? A wasted uterus? A wasted woman?

So is this just another example of patriarchy? Or has drag culture integrated itself within our society? Maybe drag will become a gateway path for trans men and women, and hopefully our society will become more accepting of these groups. But beyond this hope, I ask that we look at who’s drag culture has been integrated and where. Yes, this is a patriarchal world and we have television series like RuPaul’s Drag U where male drag queens revamp biological women with an extra dose of femininity. These shows are fun and entertaining, but what exists for women who identify themselves as men? What can offer them?

The Identity of Hair

What does your hair say about you? Is it long and free like an earthy bohemian? Or short and bobbed like a roaring flapper? Perhaps your head is shaved – that could really say something about you. Just ask Britney Spears.
For centuries, much of a woman’s identity has been tangled up in her hair. From First Corinthians 11:15 to the Victorian Era to Goldilocks, we find examples of women who are intimately associated with the quality of their hair. Hair says something about women – after all, who would Goldilocks be without her yellow coiffeur, or Kim Kardashian without her dark tendrils? Women are willing to go to painful and expensive lengths to achieve ultimate hair status. And if our hair can speak volumes of our health, our class, our social status, how far will we go to get a superior head of hair?
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Today, the hair business is booming. According to the 2008/2009 Census, The salon and spa industry is a vibrant and growing component of the U.S. economy, with more than 900,000 total establishments and annual sales of nearly $40 billion. Martha Gill at NewStatesman, writes of members of the Hindu religion in India shedding their egos by shaving their heads whilst peddlers gather the remaining hair to auction off to eager Americans. Some auctions earn as much as $27,000,000 a day.

So what is it about hair that will cause us to drain our wallets and to sit for hours in a salon chair? Actor Chris Rock asks these questions in the documentary Good Hair, as he takes a comedic look into the hair industry within the African-American community. Although humorous, this documentary illuminates the extremities women (and a few men) go to in order to alter their natural hair. Interestingly enough, the language of “relaxing” natural hair brings to mind the familiar dance of passing within an American society. If hair is changeable, albeit expensive and abrasive to change but changeable, then it could be employed to pass by minorities within this American Society. Through this lens, we understand the importance and the identity of “good hair” even if we aren’t quite too sure what exactly that is.

Hurricanes and Mother Nature

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Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many of us New Yorkers are feeling devastated and afraid; our secure NYC granite foundation has been shaken. Today I am both humbled and scared by what I have seen and felt over the last 24 hours. Fortunately, my power has outlasted the storm and I have been glued to my TV – watching a slew of storm coverage broadcasts. Over the hours, I’ve heard the gendered language that has been bantered back and forth surrounding Sandy and Mother Nature in general.

We can date the etymology of Mother Nature back to the 1600s and Mother Earth back to around 1580. The term is a personification of nature that focuses on the life-giving and nurturing aspects of a mother. Following suit, countless images of women have depicted Mother Nature throughout the generations.

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Courtesy of katinthecupboard

On the other hand, Mother Nature can also be depicted as a “temperamental lady” when it comes to Natural Disasters. Here, we see an example of gendered politics concerning the behavior patterns of women. The association of language and gender is further embedded within our society when we explore the naming of natural disasters – like hurricanes.

In 1953, the United States and the National Hurricane Center named hurricanes solely after women and did not stop this practice until 1978 when men’s and women’s names were included in the Eastern North Pacific storm lists. In 1979, male and female names were included in lists for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico (National Hurricane Center). Hurricanes are named alternating between typically female-gendered names and typically male-gendered names although a few typically gender-neutral names enter the litany (Frances, Noel).

So is Sandy a gender-neutral name? I suppose the best way to answer this question is to listen to the language used when discussing Sandy. So far, I haven’t heard anyone refer to Sandy as a “he”.

What does this gendered language say about women and nature? That they are temperamental? That they are nurturing? That they are destructive? That they are unpredictable? That they are similar? As we tune in to the storm coverage, we must make certain that we do not tune out and listen to the language used to discuss destruction.

Where there is hope, there is a market.

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Courtesy of ejhogbin

Over the years, obesity has entered our social dialogue through a variety of filters ranging from television segments to Lap-Band advertisements and promotions. Often the two worlds collide and we see celebrities and Reality TV Celebs endorse radial weight loss procedures.

In her work Happy Re-birthday: Weight Loss Surgery and the ‘New Me’, author Karen Throsby notes how the recent fascination with obesity has affected the steady increase in weight loss surgeries. Throsby states that weight loss surgery is seen as a last resort to those individuals who have battled with their weight over the years. And although weight loss surgery is incredibly invasive and dangerous, individuals still opt to go under to loss weight.

Throsby notes the discourse of “the new me” is a familiar trope that we often see within the narratives of normative bodily transformations. When we analyze these narratives within the context of weight loss surgeries, we notice that transformative procedures are often marketed with these “new me” values. And where there is hope, there is a market.

Recently, Lauren Manzo – the daughter of The Real Housewives of New Jersey star Caroline Manzo, underwent surgery to get the Lap-Band. Manzo had previously tried methods like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig to lose the weight, but decided on the Lap-Band because she felt as though she was in a “very unhealthy” place in her life. Manzo, of course, is noting her emotional health as well as her physical health in this statement. To her, the Lap-Band was not “an easy fix” but a solution to get to a happier, healthier Lauren Manzo.

Stories similar to Lauren’s pop up all over the ‘fatosphere’ – an online community of fat bloggers and designated fat activists. In her work ‘A beautiful show of strength’: Weight loss and the fat activist self’ author Zoë C. Meleo-Erwin notes the conflicts that arise between fat activists and patients undergoing weight loss surgery. Meleo-Erwin explores the experiences of these two groups and claim they can be understood through the lens of biopower as well as through Foucault’s theory of governmentality.

Concepts of a “healthy” body and an obesity-driven health crisis are more controlled by societal influence (cultural and political) than by physical health. Again we see this in extreme regimentation plans practiced through obese people who are trying and lose weight “naturally”. For any other person, these extreme limitations would be considered dangerous, and might just warrant an eating disorder. But if you are obese, somehow you lose a little bit of personhood to the epidemic of obesity. Your body is a warning and ignites moral panic. And although fat activists are fighting to restructuralize this notion of obesity and fatness, they face the omnipresent opponent created within our society through biopower.

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Courtesy of Tobyotter

And so our country has capitalized on this epidemic – providing us with a bevy of surgical procedures, Reality TV opportunities, diets, and diet pills. It is important here to recognize the different behaviors society displays towards “fat” women versus “fat” men and how a familiar trope of the ideal feminine body is called into play.

Fat Camp

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Courtesy irina slutsky

Over the years, we have seen obesity medicalized into an epidemic. Within our pop cultural world, obesity has been integrated into prime-time television with such programs as The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition, I Used to be Fat. Not to mention the fact that celebrities and their weight gains or losses infiltrate entertainment news on a daily basis. We follow various journeys of weight gain and weight loss with celebrities because they are constantly in the public sphere.

Jennifer Hudson, once the first plus-sized woman (and only the third black woman) to grace the cover of Vogue fashion magazine, now serves as the spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. On the Dr. Oz show, Hudson shared the secrets to her weight loss success noting exercise techniques, food choices and the over-all sense of happiness she feels now that she is thinner and “healthier”.

But not all celebrities endorse the “thinner” lifestyle as a “healthier” lifestyle. Recently, Lady Gaga responded to criticisms concerning her recent weight gain by launching Body Revolution, a site geared towards body acceptance and body tolerance.

What we see in this celebrity sphere, is the discourse of obesity practiced and enforced through tactics of biopower. If our society continues to enforce a “healthy” lifestyle as that of a “thin” lifestyle, then we are enforcing the notion that fatness equates to an unhealthy lifestyle. Thus fatness (or obesity) equates to some form of badness within our society.

Obesity is often linked to mental issues, especially in women. How many times have you heard women (or been a woman who says), “I’m totally eating my feelings right now”? Or after a long day, “I just want to just pig out and be lazy tonight”? Women are frequently judged by their bodies, are controlled by their bodies and thus women are taught to control their bodies. Be curvy, look like a woman with breasts and hips, but not too curvy. Be thin but not too thin, otherwise you’ll look like a boy.

If a person is fat, we use our knowledge of unhappiness passed down through biopower, to label a person as troubled, unhappy or depressed.

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Courtesy Tobyotter

Society has capitalized on this concept of the happy, thin person trapped inside the layer of fat with shows like The Biggest Loser and I Used to be Fat. But what if “fat” people are happy? Or “thin” people? And why can’t we just leave them alone?