Archive for January, 2008

Yesterday during the break of one of my classes, my students got quite excited about a story I that appeared on Salon’s Broadsheet. It examines the claim that the relative length of one’s fingers reveals how one’s brain works. According to Rutgers evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher, people whose ring fingers are long relative to their index fingers have more “male” cognitive capacities:

Women are “web thinkers” — they are intuitive data-gatherers and long-term thinkers, she said. Men are “step thinkers” — they are more analytical, linear and short-term processors. These differences are complementary, according to Fisher, and indicate that a business team balanced with men and women is ideal.

Fisher has made similar arguments about love (and profited from them – she’s a consultant for the matchmaking service Chemistry.com). She contends that partners who are too similar will grow bored in the long run, and that the ratio of testosterone to estrogen in a person is one predictor of complementarity versus similarity.

To be honest, I think my students dug the finger-length thing because it was literally a hands-on experiment – or maybe because it was the next best thing to palm-reading. Next class, I should bring a Magic 8 Ball and see if I get the same outburst of enthusiasm. Or maybe a large caliper and see how phrenology goes over.

I’m still trying to sort out what’s bunk and what’s at least potentially solid science in Fisher’s claims. It doesn’t help that she started the speech that was reported on (originally by the BBC) by declaring she’s “definitely not a feminist.” I’m not sure what relevance that has. Does she want to make clear that she’s practicing supposedly value-free science, even though she’s arguing that businesses need more female managers? Being truly value free would be a heck of a feat for an anthropologist; none of us can avoid bringing own cultural baggage to whatever culture is under study. Does she want us to know that she’s a very special kind a scientist, a sexy Queen Bee who made it to the top of her profession without any favors from those ugly old man-haters?

Or does she want to draw attention away from the fact that her conclusions mostly just echo the tired old Mars-Venus stereotypes? She says women are good multitaskers while men have laser-like abilities to focus. Women are empathetic, men analytical. Gosh, I think we’ve heard this all before.

There seems to be substantial evidence for the notion that fetal exposure to testosterone results in the ring finger being longer than the index finger. The idea that this “digit ratio” indicates roughly how much testosterone was present in the womb seems pretty uncontroversial. However, a twin study found that about genes accounted for about 70 percent of the ratio between ring and index finger, which suggests that prenatal exposure to testosterone may not be the whole reason for long ring fingers. I suppose genes could cause higher testosterone levels in the womb, in which case hormonal influences would still be a mediating factor, even if not the ultimate cause. At any rate, no one claims that the digit ratio is more than a rough mesaure.

What prenatal testosterone exposure means for gender and brain development is less clear, though. A relatively long ring finger has been linked to aggression and fertility in men, and to athletic ability in both men and women. Researchers have correlated SAT scores with finger length, too: higher math SAT scores go with longer ring fingers in both sexes, and higher verbal SATs with longer index fingers in girls. Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin to Sascha of Borat fame) has hypothesized that high levels of prenatal testosterone may be a cause of autism (which he describes as (extreme male brain), and so far his long-term research study seems to be bearing this out.

It’s well-nigh impossible to judge how solid the evidence is for any of these conclusions, simply on the basis of media reports. I’m willing to suspend judgment and keep my eyes open for future finger-length evidence.

But I have a more fundamental criticism: Why do all such studies seem so intent on posing these traits as dichotomies? Why don’t we acknowledge that someone can be good at both logic and empathy, analysis and synthesis?

I think my own abilities are pretty balanced. (Wow, one whole data point – now that’s sound science!) But as one of my students pointed out to me, my ring finger is relatively long – but only on my right hand. So maybe I’m a freak of nature.

If so, I’m in good company. Yet another study found that male scientists tent to have negligible differences in the lengths of their second and fourth fingers. In other words, the guys in some of the most stereotypically male – and male-dominated – professions such as math and physics actually exhibit a more typically feminine pattern, suggesting a balance between estrogen and testosterone.

This doesn’t mean testosterone and estrogen are irrelevant. It’s just that they don’t respect our stereotypes. And that means they’re a whole lot more complex and marvelous than most of us recognize.

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But Sex Sells!*

This ad gets the distinction of “most sexist ad I’ve seen this week” …

(Update April 5, 2009: Oops! YouTube pulled it, but there are plenty more sexist ads in the sea.)

And this one gets the nod for “most racist.”

Both ads via Feministing.

* The title of this post is courtesy of scores of students – mostly in the advertising sequence of the journalism major – who’ve argued that of course sex sells, so it’s rational to make ads like this, and that’s all you need to know about ads of this sort.

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Easy Targets

I’m going for minimalist commentary here, because I’m going to make my poor students check out these images and I don’t want to pre-empt even the most obvious observations. Don’t expect any analysis from me – just snark, ingeniously disguised as questions, which are as subtle as the images themselves.

So, is this ad sexist? Or just, y’know, kinda free-spirited and irreverent?

Does your answer change if you know the ad is actually a 20′ x 20′ billboard in Times Square?

What if you consider the original use of targets (and please don’t think too hard about the arrows, it gets painful really fast)?

Can you imagine a male model in this ad?

If it’s not sexist, then we shouldn’t be upset if little girls want to be playful and clever in the same way. This shirt is being marketed to toddlers:

But the sexualization of little girls is old hat, as this ad from 1976 shows:

So maybe we shouldn’t get too heated up about that, either. Besides, sexualization is now the hottest theme in the presidential campaign. Just take a look at the emblem of a newly formed non-partisan anti-Hillary Clinton group, whose sole purpose is apparently to sell this classy logo on T-shirts:

It turns out there are oh-so-many ways to creatively use the c-word in politics. Here’s one for the music fans:

So, as you can see, if these images are just silly, or tacky, or maybe a teensy bit sexist after all, it doesn’t matter anyway. Because we all know that women’s issues are all about identity politics, or special interests. They surely don’t have much to do with real politics.

Target ad via Shakesville
Hooter’s toddler tee via Feministe
Love’s Babysoft ad via copyranter
Anti-Clinton logo via Salon’s Broadsheet
Anti-Clinton T-shirt also via Broadsheet

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I always thought Barbie dolls were as American as apple pie and unfettered capitalism. But as I learned this week from one’s of my husband’s students, she actually has obscure roots on the other side of the globe. And her German predecessor, Bild Lilli, was a much bawdier gal than our Barbie.

The original sexy fashion doll was a spin-off of a West German tabloid, the Bild-Zeitung, which launched a cartoon in 1952 featuring a sassy, smart-mouthed young woman named Lilli who favored expensive boyfriends, and lots of ‘em. The Lilli doll went on the market in 1955, one of the frivolous products West Germans could now afford thanks to their post-World War II “economic miracle.

Late in her career (which ended when production stopped in 1964), Bild Lilli was increasingly marketed to girls, and her wardrobe included dirndls and other folkloric German costumes. She crossed the Atlantic with Mattel’s co-owner Ruth Handler, in 1956, and hit the American market in 1959, re-christened as Barbie.

But originally, Lilli was marketed to men, believe it or not, and sold in such venues as tobacco shops. The limited information available on the web repeatedly describes Lilli as a “sex doll.”

Clearly, her blouses were scantier than the norm for the era …

… and her skirts shorter …

… but I imagine it was outfits like this one that clinched her reputation as the girl you’d want as your date on any occasion, as one advertising brochure claimed.

Some have viewed her literally as a prostitute, and she’s also been compared to fetish model Betty Page.

Now, when I was in grade school my friends and I did as many naughty things with Barbie and Ken as were anatomically possible. (Which meant they had a very limited love life indeed.) But I’m still trying to figure out how the heck Bild Lilli could be a sex doll.

Apparently men posed her on their rear-view mirrors, which might be erotic, considering the relationship some men have with their cars. What else a man could do with an 11 1/2″ doll escapes my imagination.

Then again, maybe this party get-up provided some inspiration. That champagne bottle is sure at a jaunty angle.

Sources for images:
first, third, and fifth photos are from Dollopedia
the fourth photo is by flicker user teadrinker
the second and final two photos are from Bisque-Dolls

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A Not-So-Bitter Pill

When I first went on the birth control pill in the early 1980s, its reputation was still clouded by the problems associated with the original, high-dosage pills of the 1960s. I worried about blood clots (my family has a history). I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to suspect that any pill that allowed me so much fun with so little worry would eventually cause cancer.

Well, there’s good news today. It turns out that taking the pill actually protects against ovarian cancer, and to quite a dramatic degree. The AP reports on a study published today in the Lancet that found a 20 percent decrease in risk for every five years a woman took the pill. This protective effect gradually declines over time once a woman stopped taking it. But even so, this is a massive effect, which could prevent as many as 30,000 new diagnoses of ovarian cancer each year, and which for most women vastly outweighs the pill’s small increased risk of breast cancer. The Lancet is calling for the pill to be sold over the counter in Great Britain.

Whoever said that the wages of sin are death? :-)

Image from onlybirthcontrol.com

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Earlier this week, journalist and Feministing blogger Courtney Martin published a piece at Alternet in which she discussed her own reservations about abortion. She begins with the story of how she accompanied a friend who was getting an abortion. While in the waiting room, she was disturbed by the apparent lack of remorse of a woman who was chatting on her cell and herding her toddler. Martin remarks:

I was unequivocally pro-choice, but I hated that woman in her 30s because she seemed (I didn’t ask) to have such an uncomplicated relationship with abortion. I was jealous. Past my conviction that abortion should be legal and safe, my own feelings were a mess.

Martin admits that her reaction wasn’t necessarily fair, but she still uses this woman as a projection screen for her own doubts and anxieties. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon rightly takes her for task for this.

My own reading of the scene Martin describes is that of course the woman appeared ordinary and unruffled; she was waiting for a doctor, and that’s just not a situation where most people allow themselves to lose it. I’d bet no one saw how conflicted Martin and her friend may have felt, either.

Having spent tons of time in oncology wards and waiting rooms – not as a patient but as a caretaker – I’ve been repeatedly amazed at how calm people are even in the face of medical catastrophe. You’d think you’d occasionally see someone rant and rage against the dying of the light, but no, people sit stoically, chit-chat about mundane things, and wait.

I can imagine that a similar dynamic obtains in abortion facilities, too. Whatever turmoil a woman might feel while she waits, be it sorrow, guilt, or even happiness, she’ll put up a impassive front because anything else violates the norms of medical institutions.

That’s just one more reason why Courtney has no basis for her projections – apart from the fact that she didn’t know jack about that woman and her situation.

Still, I’m frustrated by how hard it is, even among feminists, to discuss the moral complexities abortion holds for some women. This issue seems to rear up every year or two. One year it’s Naomi Wolf who urges us to ponder the morality of abortion, then it’s Frances Kissling, and now it’s Courtney. Feminists should be able to discuss the morality angle without immediate accusations of betraying our own cause. Amanda Marcotte’s protestations to the contrary, the comments thread under her post on this topic already shows how quickly feminists feel judged by fellow feminists. (I posted an earlier version of this on that thread and fully expect someone will pounce on me.)

I myself find abortion morally unproblematic in early pregnancy. But I worry that if feminists can’t acknowledge and address other women’s qualms, we end up preaching to the choir and alienating people who are in the mushy middle, where a majority of young women (and men) find themselves.

As a teacher of women’s studies, I have both the opportunity and the responsibility to promote real dialog on this. Most of my students say they wouldn’t choose abortion themselves (though of course some of them will decide otherwise when faced with an actual pregnancy). But most can also be readily persuaded that women, rather than government, ought to make the decision. While I in no way view my role as providing “conversion experiences,” I’ll admit I’m glad when young people who initially say they’re pro-life realize their actual position is more complex. If they learn to distinguish the personal level from policy, it’s real progress.

Here’s an example of where feminists should reasonably be able to concede that moral complexity exists: While I agree that it’s ludicrous to endow a fetus with personhood, I’m wholly unconvinced when Marcotte equates a fetus with a tumor or with the whole universe of children-never-conceived due to birth control.

The vast majority of abortions are performed when the fetus is basically brainless, and thus those abortions have the moral weight of removing tumors or tapeworms. The potential person argument has no sway over me, because if not allowing a potential person to come into being is wrong, all forms of birth control, including abstinence, are wrong.

Unlike a tumor, a fetus is at least a potential person. And unlike the “unconceived,” a fetus is not an abstract and infinite potential person, it’s a concrete, specific one. It’s got DNA and it’s human, though it’s not yet an actual person, which is of course a crucial distinction. Its gradual development toward fully realized personhood is one reason why even most staunchly pro-choice people see a difference between abortion at 2, 12, 20, and 30 weeks. We should be able to acknowledge this without fearing that it hurts the case for abortion rights.

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Here’s a vivid reminder that children’s welfare is at risk wherever women’s reproductive rights are compromised.

In Sweden there are 3 deaths per 1,000 children under five.
In industrialised nations there are 6 deaths per 1000 under five.
In Sierra Leone there are 270 deaths per 1000 under five.

In Sweden, 1 in 17,400 mothers die in childbirth.
In the UK, 1 in 8,200 mothers die in childbirth.
In Sierra Leone, 1 in 8 mothers die in childbirth.

(Figures via A. at A Changing Life. Original source: the U.N. report, “State of the World’s Children.”)

What does a dying mother in Sierra Leone have to do with reproductive rights in the United States? Way too much, as it turns out. Our international family planning policy is crippled by the Mexico City Policy, aka the global gag rule, which prevents U.S. aid from going to any non-governmental organization that deals with abortion, however tangentially. This even includes organizations that merely provide referrals to abortion services or lobby for abortion rights.

The gag rule harms poor women in the developing world in several ways. First and most obviously, it restricts their access to safe abortion. This is reflected in the maternal mortality statistics since they also include abortion deaths. Secondly, it exposes women to unwanted pregnancies because it impedes the flow of contraceptive supplies and education. Organizations that refuse to abide by the gag rule lose crucial funding for family planning activities. Thirdly, when as these organizations lose their U.S. aid, the development of essential medical infrastructure is also compromised.

These women’s children are also harmed. Those who are left motherless due to unsafe abortions or deliveries will be at greater risk of death and disease themselves. Some are exposed to greater hunger and poverty because their mothers have no access to contraception and thus bear more children than they can support. Many of them lack basic health services because the medical infrastructure continues to be weak.

And that’s why this post’s title may be provocative; it may be paradoxical; but it’s true. Where women have access to safe abortions and reproductive care, their children will be healthier.

Further proving the point that mothers and children suffer when a society ranks “life” over individual lives, we in the U.S. have been unable to put our own house in order. The lifetime risk of death in childbirth is 1 in 4800 here, more than three times that of Sweden. Much of this discrepancy is due to the risks that poor women of color face in childbearing. Like child poverty, it’s a national disgrace. Equally disgraceful, we rarely hear about it in the media.

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