Tag Archives: gender norms

Questioning Equality

You’ll notice the red equal signs all over Facebook today. An example of resistance (as opposed to reform):


“Against Equality is an online archive, publishing, and arts collective focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. As queer thinkers, writers and artists, we are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the US military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation.”

I’m somewhat with it because I’m really pretty ‘meh’ about the necessity and value of marriage. But on the other hand I do think that if we’re going to have the idea/institution we ought to present it with at least a semblance of equality of opportunity. The other two issues seem similar – yes, we should reduce (or in some views eliminate) the military and drastically alter the prison system – but if we do not have the power to take these actions (because we must compromise in a democracy that includes the radical right) we ought at least strive for equality of opportunity. Maybe it’s just the name I have a problem with – against equality – instead of considering, questioning, critiquing and understanding society in our efforts to achieve equality of opportunity.

A more sexy approach

I watched this TED talk the other day:

Generally I thought this talk was good. She gives easily-identifiable examples and lands on next steps at the end, something many cultural studies people don’t do so well. I thought one of her suggestions was unreasonable, but we’ll come back to this. What inspired this post is that I made the mistake of looking at the comments below the video. One user, likely a young man, had been going back and forth with the other contributors. I’ll examine one comment of his:

“I agree somewhat – at least in the importance of being direct. It’s such a shame, then, that people like this C. Heldman would tell men that such behavior is ‘objectifying women’. She instead denies male sexuality and pushes this ‘nice guy’ attitude which doesn’t do anyone any good.

Men judge women on appearance, then we look at other things. That’s? not bad, it’s just the way we were built. Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes some women uncomfortable. IMO”

I’m not really clear what he’s talking about in the first part of the statement, but I think the second part is worth unpacking a bit. My first reaction is to disagree with him – not all men judge all women based on their appearance, but certainly many people get first impressions of one another. I’ve sometimes felt a little shameful in how I’ll spot physically attractive women out of the corner of my eye in a crowd and won’t pay the slightest bit of attention to others. I know this is primarily a socialized recognition but at times it feels almost instinctual – how fast and with how little information my mind manages to make these evaluations. It’s perhaps well-practiced. I can’t say I can subscribe to any notion of human nature (if anything it’s our “nature” to create our own ways of being to shape the world around us) but it’s not surprising he chooses to rely on this false discourse – “it’s just the way we were built” – by who? What evidence do we have that all men are ‘built’ in a way that makes them “judge women on appearance” ? I do assume he’s referring to primordial or carnal instincts and urges, not the assemblage of experiences and learned behaviors from which our identities are built. Suggesting that some biology controls us mostly or entirely alleviates any responsibility he might have for his own actions.

I was ready to dismiss his comment entirely until the very last sentence. “Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes women uncomfortable.” Again I’m not sure that there is such a thing as ‘naturally’ in this case, but let me put my own twist on this. I deal with some measure of guilt in my pursuit of romantic partners. No amount of feminist idealism is going to dramatically alter the hormonal component of attraction. I’ve certainly had the kinds of people I’m attracted to change over the years of my life, but this process has been gradual and not actively guided. The TED speaker may not be asking men to simply switch off the way they’re attracted to women like a light-switch (10:15 mark, her next steps) but I can certainly understand why this (presumably) young man might feel like that’s what she’s asking.

Try as I might I will likely never be attracted to overweight women. I could choose to date one, but I wouldn’t be able to successfully or responsibly have sex with a person who’s overweight (stated crudely, “I couldn’t get it up”). I know this preference is probably hurtful, on some level. But ultimately our social control can only go so far. Trying to rearrange what body types “society” reveres as attractive is just plain difficult – and it’s a process. Pointing out objectification and encouraging women to give up makeup and high heels and the like is absolutely necessary (and I actively push for these kinds of changes), but I’m not convinced it will change what body types most currently existing heterosexual men are attracted to. My children will grow up being encouraged to find women or men of many healthy body appearances attractive but this doesn’t solve the issue for myself or the guy who made this comment. This reality makes the speaker’s pitch feel considerably less satisfying or actionable – and can almost come off as the notion that in order to be feminist and stamp out objectification (hetero) men must stop being attracted to female bodies. Or, alternatively, that they must completely suppress or ignore their hormonal urges and first impressions and determine their attraction based purely on other things, like confidence or talents or power.

These days I’ve reached a sort of compromise – I police myself, trying to give equitable attention to women (and men) of many appearances and clearly never find myself in a relationship with women who don’t have real character and integrity. I’m not ready to advocate that we give up on finding bodies attractive. I think bodies are great, and while I don’t want to constantly objectify them I’m alright with people finding certain forms of them desirable. I doubt very much the speaker would object to suggesting healthy bodies should be recognized and valued. What’s more is that the strict cultural studies approach often grounds us too deeply in the negative. While we do need to point out the negative influences objectification of the female form has I think it’s worth taking other positive actions – complimenting women who don’t bother with high heels or encouraging women to look for and expect value on the basis of their opinions and assertions in the world around them.

In other words, let’s go with more positivity. Don’t tell (hetero) boys not to be attracted hot chicks (or to ignore that they’re hot), tell them to look for and encourage depth in women.

Strange social norms

This post was a while back, but I juts now have gotten to it. A fellow PhD student, in an attempt to help us brainstorm more creative ways to recruit new information science students, sent us the following advertisement for reference:

As he explained, it’s a puzzle meant to draw you in:

In this poster, everything is hidden in the binary code (please ignore the girl at the background).

The decipher process can be found at http://xrl.us/bnx5jc (in Chinese). Here are the steps to get the material in natural language (I skip some trial and reasoning steps):

  1. OCR the binary code from the image.
  2. Save it as a binary file and name it bin.gz (you can get the name of the file by interpreting the binary code).
  3. Unzip the file and get a file called bin. This is a java class (again, tell from the binary code).
  4. Save the file as a java class and run it. You can get the correct name of the class (i.class) from the java error message.
  5. Run the class again and finally you will get an url: www.i.u-tokyo.ac.jp/fun/hikari-loveletter

What puzzles me about it is not actually the number cipher, which I imagine is pretty neato, but the the relevance of the woman in the background. Is she supposed to be just a pretty background, like a flower pattern? Are they assuming only heterosexual men apply and that this woman will get their attention? Is this like insurance companies that put naked ladies on billboards, but a subdued version? I’m not yet ready to label it sexist, simply because I don’t understand Japanese culture enough to comprehend the context. Right now I can’t help but see it as comically non-sequitur!

Women and Wikipedia, a rant.

A friend emailed me a link to an interesting visualization on Wikipedia and authorship (http://flowingdata.com/2012/09/11/wikipedia-is-dominated-by-male-editors/) that demonstrates the sheer contributions gaps. I of course freaked out about it:

This has been an issue for a while now :/ I’ve been running into more and more people that are starting their own community wikis because of the higher level restrictions imposed on authors for source citation. It’s sort of a funny backlash, coming from teachers and academics (old farts mostly I think) who think Wikipedia is rubbish, which has in turn created this kind of hostile environment for new editors and people exploring the system, as well as those who think about knowledge differently. “No I don’t have a citation for the meaning of this statue, I have a story about it” isn’t legitimate in some systems of logic. Probably an example of institutionalized sexism built into our construction of knowledge – you don’t get to say “I think it’s this, maybe?” you have to be gruff and shout “it’s fucking this damnit” and then intimidate anyone else who opposes you. Rampant in the dialectic world that surrounds me here, be it humanities or engineering or whatever, sadly.

Or at least that’s my impression of the social dynamic underlying it. The technical aptitude thing is a little different, I think, in that our systems of education suck at teaching people to hack and build with computer systems. Wikipedia’s input method isn’t all that friendly but it’s very simple for anyone who has been taught to program. Generally women are swayed away from learning to create with information interfaces in the same way they’re discouraged from doing math. This is starting to change, though, as many women have adopted and driven social media development and programs in informatics are growing and increasingly diverse while computer science becomes even more white/Asian male dominated. Lately my answer hasn’t been “Oh let’s get more women in CS” it has instead been “Fuck CS and abstract math, let’s get more people of all kinds into interdisciplanary studies that relate computers to real people and real practice.”

A long-winded trip of a response to your frustration. I’m sorry it sucked to try to modify Wikipedia. I’m not sure what the answer might be for you personally, other than maybe making it a project with the hubby or a more tech-experienced female friend, but I know as an instructor I can do something like modifying Wikipedia as an assignment and using the peer-learning/social-support classroom environment to make it more possible. We have at least a couple of professors in LIS that do this (and remember, GSLIS = 85% women, most of them ultra-timid introverts, so this is a big deal).

You landed on a very good question, though -> which professions contribute more to Wikipedia? My money would be on those with more educated people and ones that fit more into that masculine dialectic dynamic I related above. Also people with free time and a computer available. Maybe what we need is a really good cell phone app for Wikipedia.

That’s colored bright pink.