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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.

Images:
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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Blog for Choice Day

To mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I’ll be posting on the politics of abortion this week. (A single day just isn’t enough: too much to say, too little time.)

When I teach about abortion and reproductive rights, I refer to the anti-abortion position as “pro-life.” I do this as a courtesy, to express respect for my students who call themselves pro-life. Without respect, you can’t hope to have a civil and reasonable discussion, and that’s tricky enough anyway where abortion is concerned. If I marginalize pro-life students, at best they’ll simply clam up, stopping discussion before it even starts. At worse, it can degenerate into name-calling.

But I still struggle with this because I think “pro-life” is a dishonest and misleading label.

Dishonest, because most politicians and too many ordinary people who favor “life” for an embryo don’t give a flying fig about what happens to that embryo once born. Or if they do, they’re not willing to put their money where their mouth is and support programs such as Head Start, SCHIP, etc. that would actually safeguard and nurture children at social and physical risk.

Misleading, because when a woman chooses abortion as her least-bad option, it can give her the chance to preserve her own life. I mean this mostly in the social sense, though of course in rare cases complications of pregnancy can literally endanger a woman’s life. By terminating a pregnancy, a woman may protect herself against poverty, avoid permanent enmeshment in a destructive relationship, complete her education, or just plain finish growing up.

The term “life” is actually an abstraction, as Barbara Duden has pointed out. “My life” is not abstract. Neither is “your life.” But “life” as such is an idea, not a person. Same goes for “human life,” though not “a human life,” which is always specific and embodied.

Now, you might choose to fight for an abstraction, such as democracy or freedom or life. These are abstractions that matter. There are good reasons that they’ve inspired people to make sacrifices to preserve them. But when you start to rank the abstraction higher than actual people, and when you mandate by law that certain individuals or classes of people must make such sacrifices, you risk treating people as mere means to an end. And that is always ethically wrong, as Immanuel Kant argued. (I’m not a trained philosopher, I just live with one. This principle is a pretty basic one, though, and I think most reasonable people would agree with it.)

In “pro-life” rhetoric, this ethical blind spot is exacerbated by a tendency to treat women, in particular, as less than full persons. We see this when pro-lifers expect a woman to nurture a fetus against her will, yet they would not require anyone to donate a kidney – or even blood – involuntarily. We see this when pro-lifers portray women who terminate pregnancies as hapless victims of men who force them to abort. We see this when pro-lifers propose legislation that would require a woman to notify her partner prior to abortion. In all these instances, pro-lifers suggest women are not moral agents capable of making their own decisions.

An honest and ethical politics of abortion would require always viewing and respecting women – and mothers – as ends-in-themselves, not just as a mere vehicle for amporphous “life.” Perhaps paradoxically, it’s that sort of respect – for my students as ends-in-themselves – that I try to honor when I use their term, not mine, to denote those who oppose abortion rights.

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It sounds as though the Democratic candidates are trying to move beyond the race vs. gender sniping that threatened to mire the race in muck (though the media tried mightily to drag it there).

That’s a relief. Not just because it’s a mighty long time until November, and no one outside the media has the stomach for that much ugliness. And not just because the Dems only stand a chance if they can avoid eating each other alive.

I’m glad mainly because the candidates’ truce reopens a chance to talk about race and gender in more substantial and fruitful terms. One such way is to look at how race and gender impose double binds on people – create “choices” where no matter what one chooses, it’s a lose-lose proposition.

Matthew Yglesias of the Atlantic has suggested that a black candidate is less subject to double binds than a female one because all he needs to do is avoid confirming stereotypes, while a woman who avoids the trap of appearing too girly will quickly be labeled heartless and calculating.

Leaving aside his assumption (which pervades most of the commentary) that one is either black or a woman but not both, he’s right about women. Clinton has been called ruthless and robotic, yet as soon as her voice cracked in New Hampshire, the punditry pounced on this flash of humanity and called it weakness. As Jon Stewart hilariously pointed out, she didn’t even shed any actual tears. Ironically, we’ve reached an age where it may actually be more acceptable for male candidates to cry than for women, so long as they don’t totally lose it. Maybe this is because by the time a male politician attains national prominence, he’s already proven his masculine bona fides.

Women also face more pressure than men to prove they’re ballsy enough to be commander-in-chief. Now, for purely anatomical reasons, this is tricky any day of the week. But in this election cycle, it’s a true double bind: Clinton’s macho posturing on foreign policy will never be enough to persuade voters who think women are too hormonal to deal with war and peace, but it surely will cost her a heap of votes, mine included.

For a black candidate, though, the situation is more complicated than Yglesias allows. Yes, Obama will have to dismantle straightforward stereotypes, such as the manufactured story that he’s really a closet Muslim. But he also faces some true lose-lose choices.

Last week in my classes, my students had some perceptive things to say about precisely how Barack Obama is constrained by racialized double binds. For one, they noted that his bi-racial status can function in this way. Obama can lay claim to being black and thus fit cleanly into our pre-established categories but deny an important part of his own personal history. Or he can acknowledge his dual heritage, which however might imply he’s trying to pass as white and deny his connection to the African-American community.

In my own view, the most important double bind that Obama faces is that he’s criticized – often by fellow Democrats – for trafficking too much in the rhetoric of hope and unity. He’s seen as not aggressive enough. He appears too nice. But let’s imagine an aggressive black man. What image does that call up: A polished politician who knows how to win an election? Or a cocky pimp from the ‘hood?

And so this particular double bind condemns Obama to take the high road. On the one hand, I’m afraid that this double bind will tie his hands if he wins the nomination and the Republicans try to Swift-boat him into oblivion. On the other hand, I’m grateful for his rhetoric of hope. We could all use some.

For this Martin Luther King Day, Obama delivered a beautiful and gutsy speech (via Pam Spaulding at Pandagon, who has great commentary on it). In calling for the black community to rid itself of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, Obama said:

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.

Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.

Let us begin to bind those wounds and break those double binds.

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Hope

So this morning, my younger son, the Tiger, peers out his window at the back yard and announces in his most charming voice: “I love to run through the sprinkler! Can we we put on the sprinkler and run through it, Mama?”

Outside it’s 8 degree Fahrenheit, the coldest morning of the winter so far. (And please oh please, let it be the coldest of this winter, period.) The window is frosted with a delicate tracery of ice that echoes the form of the trees’ black and barren branches.

But yes, my Tiger, one day soon we will put on the sprinkler, and you will run through it.

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Tweety in Twouble

Heh heh. Under public pressure, Chris “Tweety” Matthews has had to apologize for his long record of making sexist comments on the air. Except that he didn’t really address anything besides his attributing Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory to the halo of victimhood she gained during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. And he didn’t really apologize so much as admit that sometimes he doesn’t word things well in the heat of the broadcast moment. And besides, if he had to worry about political correctness he couldn’t say anything interesting – or so he says, and who am I to argue with that?

You might call it a mea kinda sorta culpa.

Media Matters, which led the campaign protesting Matthews’ on-camera sexism, has the transcript and video; watch and wince. Feministing and Broadsheet both have sharp, skeptical analyses.

Considering the sheer number of his sexist slip-ups, I too am skeptical of his capacity for reform. I’d put him on double-secret probation, if I were one of his viewers, which I’m not unless I’m trapped in an airport terminal with CNN blaring. (I just don’t gracefully tolerate being yelled at.)

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Huckahumor #2

See, I knew there was good reason to make “Huckahumor” a numbered series.

Huckabee came out this week in favor of amending the Constitution to bring it into harmony with his god:

“[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards,” Huckabee said, referring to the need for a constitutional human life amendment and an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
[via Pandagon, which includes some delicious Freeper reactions as a bonus feature]

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Oh wait. Huckabee is serious about this.

And just for good measure, this week he also reaffirmed his support for wives’ submission in marriage.

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Iraqing the Vote

Yesterday Arianna Huffington called attention to something that’s hard me boiling mad for weeks now: the disappearance of Iraq as an issue in the presidential campaign. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Arianna. She’s too privileged – too rich, too connected, too Hollywood-ish, too often on Larry King. But she’s often spot-on, and so she was yesterday in calling the candidates and media to task for ignoring the war.

Given how similar the leading Democrats are on domestic issues, Iraq – and foreign policy in general – ought to be front and center in their campaigns. It’s their trump suit when it comes to winning in November, and it’s also one area where their records diverge notably. Yet lately they’ve been almost mum on the war. Guess they’ve been too busy slogging through the destructo-politics of race and gender.

For me, Obama’s early and consistent opposition to our attacking Iraq is the most compelling reason to support his candidacy. Yeah, he’s a rhetorical magician and stands a good chance of drawing votes even from committed Republicans. (I say this on the basis of a highly scientific poll of my family members, N=2, so take it with a big block of salt.) But his condemnation of the war is the deal-maker for me. It’s important enough to me that it neutralizes the allure of voting for the first female presidential contender.

Of course, you might object that the three leading Dems don’t differ greatly on what they’ll do to extricate us from the mess in Iraq. And that’s true. Our options are severely limited. Edwards may have a slightly more aggressive plan to draw down American troops faster and more completely, as some have argued, including Joshua Holland on Alternet. But even if that’s so, he’d be tightly constrained by Congress and the military leadership, just as any other possible president would be. Because of this, I’m not convinced there are practical differences in the candidates’ positions (apart from Kucinich and Ron Paul).

So why does Obama’s initial position on Iraq even matter, now that we’re neck-deep in a Mess-opotamia and have very few options to extricate ourselves? Because it’s our best indicator of how he’ll respond to Iran, Pakistan, and other nations that threaten international stability. Clinton’s rhetoric on Iran has been considerably harsher. She mocked Obama’s stated willingness to actually talk to Syria’s leadership. She voted for the Vile-Lieberman – I mean, Kyl-Lieberman – amendment, thus helping ratchet up our confrontation with Iran. And while it would be unfair to judge her solely on her husband’s record as president, it’s still worth noting that Bill Clinton had few reservations about dropping a bomb or two on Sudan or Iraq during his presidency.

Me, I’d rather have a president who’d mend fences and negotiate with foreign leaders rather than rattle the sabers and drop the bombs. And I think Obama will be that guy.

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Gloria Steinem lit a minor firestorm a week ago when she argued in a New York Times op-ed piece that sexism is trumping racism in this season’s primary campaign. True, she noted halfway through her piece:

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together.

But she also stated:

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.

Steinem got plenty of richly deserved flak – even from her own goddaughter, Rebecca Walker - for playing the “I’m more oppressed than you” game. (Check out the links for some great critiques of her piece. They hash it out so thoroughly and well that I really can’t add anything.)

In response to a piece on Alternet by Sally Kohn, Steinem did back off from her latter statement. But as Kohn and others pointed out, the rest of Steinem’s op-ed built an argument for sexism being more pervasive, virulent, and persistent than racism, based on such evidence as African-Americans gaining suffrage 50 years before women. (Never mind that Jim Crow laws prevented many African-Americans from actually exercising the right to vote until a good 100 years after they won it.)

Arguing that sexism trumps racism is just plain stupid. For one thing, it doesn’t describe the real world. Sometimes racism is obviously more salient than sexism. For example, very few women have been targeted as potential shoplifters and tailed by retail clerks or even store detectives just because they’re women. This has happened to a great many African-Americans just because they’re black – irrespective of how well-dressed they may appear, which says this is about race rather than social class.

Secondly, it’s politically simpleminded to pit race against gender. If the Democrats want to retake the White House in the fall, they’ve got to ditch their traditional circular firing squad behavior. Why should the Republicans stoop to divide-and-conquer tactics when the Democrats are busy doing the job for them?

I think the reason Steinem’s op-ed nonetheless resonated with some women – including some young feminists who really ought to know better – is that Hillary Clinton’s gender really has been a liability in certain ways. This is particularly true if you look at some of her treatment by the media. Exhibit A: Maureen Dowd’s latest column in the New York Times (which Jon Swift spoofed marvelously). Exhibit B: This cartoon, which appeared in the Washington Post last week:

Exhibit C: Washington Post Columnist Joel Achenbach, who suggested Clinton “needs a radio-controlled shock collar so that aides can zap her when she starts to get screechy” (via Feministing). Exhibit D: Any broadcast featuring über-blowhard Chris Matthews, who outdid himself last week when he attributed Clinton’s New Hampshire primary win to sympathy she gained due to her husband’s infidelity.

I think it’s also fair to say that certain overtly sexist verbal slurs are still acceptable in a way that the “N” word is not. In fact, the term “bitch” is increasingly allowable in polite company, on TV, and in public places. The media have largely given this a pass. Sure, they reported on the incident where a McCain supporter asked the candidate, “How do we beat the bitch?” and both McCain and the crowd laughed in response. Now, maybe McCain laughed partly in embarrassment. Let’s give him that much benefit of the doubt. But swap the N-word for the B-word and imagine the outcry had the same question been asked about Obama. You can be pretty sure McCain would’ve reacted much more soberly. And might the media have kept the story alive for more than 24 hours?

But racism is equally potent in this campaign. It’s just expressed in somewhat different forms. We need to be able to acknowledge that racism and sexism don’t need to look the same to be equally pernicious. And apart from overt racism on Fox News, it’s less the media than Clinton’s supporters who are playing the race card.

For the past few days, the Clinton-Obama mudslinging has occurred mostly on racial issues. While Obama’s campaign has sought to make hay from Clinton’s remarks that played down the importance of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, it’s Clinton’s people who have really made race an issue, and not in any constructive way. Probably the most egregious example of this is their repeated references to Obama’s self-confessed cocaine use as a teenager. This *not* about drugs, though, or even Obama’s character. It’s about race. It plays into all those familiar stereotypes about black men as drug users, dealers, and gangstas. That’s still just as true even if the Clinton ally invoking it is himself black.

In fairness, it’s unlikely that Clinton herself is directing these racist attacks, and her husband has denied her involvement. But she’s tolerating them from her underlings, despite calls from Obama’s campaign to renounce them. Also to be fair, Obama has not denounced the media’s use of sexist stereotypes, and he should. But sins of omission are not as severe as sins of commission. And so far you don’t see him or his people feeding the sexist media beast.

Who wins in the gender vs. race wars? Not Clinton. Not Obama. But maybe Huckabee, McCain, or Romney.

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Huckahumor #1

So this morning, before I’ve had my coffee, I mumble to my husband, apropos of I-really-don’t-know-what-anymore:

How could that be?

And he cleverly points out that if you’re still sleepy and mumbly, that phrase sounds just like

Huckabee?

Which I’m pretty sure is what the Republican muckety-mucks were wondering after Iowa:

Huckabee? How could that be?

As leery as I am of a prospective President who believes wives should “graciously submit” to their husbands, I can’t help feeling some schadenfreude at all the consternation that the Republican establishment is feeling about this upstart from Arkansas. For years they’ve pandered to religious social conservatives. Now those same voters are demanding their share of the political pie. And why shouldn’t they? Assuming they’re not swept up in the Rapture before November, of course.

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Mischief or Misogyny?

For at least the past three days, the graffiti wall at my esteemed university has displayed some charming and oh-so-original artwork.

Here’s the detailed view ’cause, y’know, it’s really subtle:

The most remarkable thing about this is how absolutely unremarkable it seems to be. To my knowledge, the campus newspaper, The Post, hasn’t made a peep about it. No one mentioned it in my classes, though one of yesterday’s main topics was sexism. No one has painted over it yet (which may be partly because the weather has been rainy).

Is there any way to read this that’s not all about sexism and misogyny?

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It turns out that if you search YouTube for Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” one of the hits that pops up is a grotesque video of Hillary Rodham Clinton chirping the song in a Chipmunk-y voice. Her head is pasted on top of a female torso wearing only a bra, and her mouth looks a bit like it was lifted from a blow-up doll (but maybe it’s just the bad animation).

I hesitated to include the actual video here, because it’s fairly offensive and has very little humor as a redeeming value, but it’s hard to convey its yuck-factor in words alone.

(Update April 5, 2009: Well, you’re going to have to just imagine it, since it’s now off YouTube, and that may be just as well!)

When I brought this up in class as an example of sexism, not all of my students were convinced. One pointed out that there are fake videos of Dubya in a diaper. I looked but couldn’t find any on YouTube. If they’re out there, then yes, depicting an adult in diapers is infantilizing. It’s in poor taste and not particularly funny either. But it’s not mocking him as a man. It’s not reducing him to his sex organs, his sex appeal, or his supposed lack thereof. It’s not reminding the world that this candidate has a vagina, and so she must be weak, emotional, erratic, and thus unworthy of office.

What I did turn up was a depiction of Senator David Vitter in diapers, apparently feeding off a rumor that he indulged a diaper fetish with prostitutes he frequented in Washington. I guess I missed that salacious detail because I was out of the country when the Vitter scandal broke last summer. But nah, it couldn’t be true, because Senator Vitter is such a strong supporter of family values and the sanctity of marriage. (For the record, he’s ‘fessed up to his prostitution habit, but not to any kink.)

The same caveats as above apply to the Vitter video, too. It’s not exactly hilarious and the diaper thing is pretty darn gross. But is it sexist? If so, the sexism is mostly an accidental side effect of its main point, mocking Vitter’s alleged pervy fetish. While I admit I’d never even heard of this particular fetish before today and it seriously squicks me out, I would agree that if it’s part of the man’s private life, it would really be his business, and his alone, except that he ran for office on the promise of regulating other people’s private lives.

Of course, sexism can be used against men, too. John Edwards has been repeatedly spoofed for his supposed effeminacy and “Breck Girl” hair. That, again, is incontrovertibly sexist, because the whole idea is to discredit him by associating him with all things girly. Because, you know, girly men are weak, emotional, erratic, etc.

This video is a great example of how sexism can be aimed against men, and when it is, it’s almost always tangled up with homophobia. It’s instructive in two other ways as well: I’m inclined to believe it when it says Ann Coulter called Edwards a “fag” because she’s just jealous of his glossy hair. And it shows what a bad idea it would be for Edwards to grow it long; with photoshopped long tresses, he looks alarmingly like Björn from Abba.


I’d be interested to know if there are examples of sexism being used to mock any of the Republican candidates. I would never suggest that Democrats take the high road – far from it. But if a Democrat overtly uses sexism as a tactic, he gets thoroughly spanked for it by even his strongest supporters, and rightly so, as happened a few days ago when Edwards suggested Clinton might not be tough enough after she choked up in public.

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There seems to be a quiet conspiracy afoot in this world. No, not terrorists; not even the vast right wing (which is in too much disarray these days to conspire effectively, anyway).

This conspiracy involves the technology in each classroom where I’ve taught. It’s guaranteed to crap out at the most embarrassing moment possible.

Today, it was the sound system attached the computer I wanted to use to play a YouTube clip of Helen Reddy from 1972. I’d just given a lengthy lecture on the history of feminism in America and wanted to wake my students up again.

“I am woman, hear me roar.” NOT. I could barely get a hiss out of the speakers.

So, I made it all the way to Day 2 of my Intro to Women’s Studies course before managing to re-confirm one of the hoariest old stereotypes: Girls don’t have a clue about technology! Especially computers! Eek!

I suppose it could’ve been more embarrassing yet. I could’ve sung the whole song and revealed that I still know all the lyrics.

Tomorrow, I’ll call the dudes who are paid to fix such things – and in my dealings with them to date, they have always been dudes, nary a dudette among them.

I’d like to include the Helen Reddy clip here, but – irony upon irony – YouTube won’t let me do it. Like I said, it’s a conspiracy. So if you want to get empowered, you gotta go here.

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