Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

When I first heard of International Women's Day, I was a kind of annoyed. I mean, women get one day? Out of 365?

But I guess the real point of days like this is to commemorate women who have shaped the world against all odds--in big ways and in small ways. In many countries, Women's Day celebrated like Mother's Day; a day to give thanks to the female family members and teachers in one's life.

So with that in mind, here are some of the woman who have made me who I am. I can't track them all down, and I can't thank them enough, but I can't imagine being the person I am today without them.

Ms. Geier, my fourth grade teacher.
Shifra and Hazel, my Hebrew teachers.
Ms. Cunningham, my eighth grade English teacher.
Ms. Horowitz, my tenth grade science teacher.
Melissa and Ilene.
Julia, my writing teacher at camp.
Rebecca, my writing teacher.
My three grandmothers, Mira, Gloria, and Ann.
My mom.

Perhaps fittingly, given that the International Women's Day theme of 2011 includes "Equal access to education," most of the women on this list are teachers. I'm so grateful, not only to be a woman in a country with free and equal education, but to have the opportunity to learn from these amazing people. Who happen to be female. 

Happy Women's Day, everyone! Who are you grateful for?

Fiction Vs. Reality

Every day on my way to school, I'm struck by the contrast between these two subway advertisements.

The first one, unfortunately, I've been seeing everywhere, and it always makes me want to hit something. The text, if you can't make it out, reads "Less lawyer. More appeal." The image speaks for itself: the same slender young woman used to sell anything and everything, with curves, heels, long legs, and a sultry if vacuous expression. The briefcase at her feet is just another accessory--almost an afterthought.

To a teenage girl who'll be applying to college soon, who's considering a career in law, the message is clear: forget about that J.D. How you look in a little black dress will always, always be more important.

This ad is for the USA television drama Fairly Legal.

The second ad features a smiling woman in boxing gloves leaning against the ropes of a ring. This woman is also young, also attractive and feminine, but she looks happier--and more real. The image hasn't been photoshopped. Her face, not her legs, is the focal point. The text beneath her reads, "I am not your average girl; Keisher 'Fire' McLeod, boxer." A contender, not a ring girl.

The ad is for 4 New York, a WNBC news channel.

How can two advertisements, placed literally side by side, present two totally opposite portrayals of women? One woman is a fictional character; the other, a native Brooklynite. One woman is posed and photoshopped; the other, maybe a bit sweaty, but proudly in her element. One promotes an outdated stereotype of what a woman can be--the other tears it down.

There are over 4 million women in New York City. There are single women, married women, divorced women, lesbian moms, Jewish grandmothers, Starbucks baristas, students, teachers, aspiring actresses, women of practically every race, religion, and ethnicity. When I think about it, it's not the sexualized image of the Fairly Legal ad that most provokes me. It's that this image--so false, predictable, and limiting--is promoted over and over as if it's the only way women are. Or the only way they should be. The truth is that women are too diverse to fit into any one box. Advertisers should start pandering to that demographic.

This is a case of media fiction lagging way behind reality.

(You can see Mrs. McLeod-Wells' boxer bio here, by the way. She's pretty awesome.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Lurking Sex? Gender Inequality In Cyberspace

Cross-posted on the SPARK blog. (Link soon.)

The average Facebook user: male or female? Not sure?

What about the YouTube troll posting grammatically incorrect homophobic slurs? The preteen playing games on Neopets.com? The author of Harry Potter romance stories on Fanfiction.net? The viewer of a porn site? 

The gender line may blur, bend, or blip briefly out of existence, but it always seems to reappear--and the Internet, however progressive and democratic, is no exception.  

On January 31st, a front-page New York Times article examined the gender disparity among Wikipedia.com contributors. Wikipedia welcomes amateur editors, yet only 13 percent of registered contributors are women. This statistic doesn't reflect overall use of the site, which is split roughly 50-50 between the sexes. So women are reading Wikipedia; they're just not participating. This gender gap manifests itself in two ways: a lack of articles relating to primarily female interests, like friendship bracelets, "Sex and the City," and feminism, and a lack of female contribution to articles of general interest, resulting in a male-skewed view of what is "notable" in history and pop culture. 

SPARK stresses the importance of recognizing women for their voices, not just their bodies. The Internet seems to give women the chance to do just that--create an identity defined by ideas, not sexuality or physical appearance. If women were really interested, wouldn't they have already claimed their 50 percent of the Wiki sphere? 

There are a few possible reasons for the lack of women contributors. Some argue that Wikipedia's editing process is needlessly complicated, time-consuming, and technical. Wiki has its own system for editing articles, similar to HTML code, which may intimidate female users who don't see themselves as tech-savvy. Others blame the group of veteran editors--mostly male--who police certain pages, promoting their point of view. Others believe that men simply have more free time than women to engage in edit wars with anonymous strangers.

Wikipedia's talk pages, like many Internet forums, are replete with arrogant assertions, blared ignorance, and cutting personal attacks. In theory, anyone can edit, but whether one's changes will stay on the site is a different matter. To contribute successfully, Wikipedia users must assert, defend, and promote their ideas. Do women lack the self-esteem to commit to such a battle? Do they just not care enough? 

Many women are less likely to enter into a contentious or hostile public environment, preferring to use the Internet in ways that they can control, through social media (networks and blogs). Social networking sites like Facebook are female-dominated, though by a much slighter ratio: 1.35:1 female-to-male compared to the 1:7 ratio of Wiki contributors. 

The Wikipedia disparity is important because the website supposedly models democracy. What does it mean when women are consistently lurkers, but not commentators? Consumers, but not creators? 

Wikimedia executive Sue Gardner's goal for Wikipedia--25 percent female contributors by 2015--will not be reached until women can assert themselves in the public space, both online and in "real" life. The Internet is the future, and women should claim their equal share.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

25 Years Later, Still Living In A Material World

Cross-posted on the SPARK Blog.

This holiday season, are you looking for a gift that's "unique"? That's perfect for everyone, from your significant other to your mom? That's "a valuable choice during these tough economic times"?

Locateadoc.com recommends "The Plastic Surgery Gift Card – The Ultimate Holiday Gift."

In the wake of the recession, plastic surgeons are finding innovative new ways to provide their services affordably. The United States' most popular cosmetic surgery? Breast augmentation, with 290,000 operations performed last year alone. Assuming that all patients were female, that's 1 for every 540 American women.

Whether you believe that cosmetic surgery is a social justice issue or a patient's valid personal choice, the trend in cosmetic surgery is one of the more troubling reflections of Christmastime materialism. Plastic surgery slaps an actual price tag on large breasts, delicate noses, tight skin, and all the other attributes that women "need" to get ahead. In a society that values appearance and sex appeal as much as it values education, plastic surgery isn't just a luxury gift--it's an investment. This seems to be the rationale behind graduation gifts of breast enlargement and rhinoplasty to teenage girls. What better way to ensure success in the next stage of a young woman's career? 70% of working women, and even many men, see plastic surgery as way to appear youthful in the face of a competitive job market.

The issue of women and materialism is nothing new. In 1985, Madonna released her classic single "Material Girl"; a five-minute video featuring an actress who willingly sexualizes herself, apparently bamboozling her male admirers with her beauty while she picks their pockets. The single has been called both feminist and counter-feminist. On the one hand, Madonna's persona (an ironic homage to Marilyn Monroe in "Diamond's Are A Girl's Best Friend") is portrayed as a woman in charge. She knows her own worth and is determined to use her assets (i.e. sexual appeal) to get the expensive clothing, jewelry and furs she wants. On the other, she is, well, using her sex appeal to get what she wants. She's buying in to a "sexual capitalist" society which determines women's worth by their bodies. Not necessarily exulting in the reality of the "material world", Madonna's personna is making the most of it. But taking advantage of a world that sexualizes women means accepting that it will never change. 

As a pop star and sex symbol, Madonna has achieved monumental wealth and success. A victory for pop stars, maybe, but not a victory for women. The entertainment and modeling industries, like any organizations in a capitalist system, favor the few on top. Many models are paid poorly, and the cost to girls and women everywhere when a stereotypical, sexed-up image of women is propogated is untold.

So please, lay off the plastic surgery gift cards this holiday season.  When sex is capital, women can't win.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Taking Sexy Back

Cross-posted on the SPARK blog.

Walking home after dark a few nights ago, I passed a pair of guys sprawled on a park bench. As I reached the corner, one of them turned to the other and commented, "Yeah, she's pretty."

I decided not to ignore it. I turned my head and gave him a look. As I walked away, the guy called after me. "You don't think you are, but you are."

Maybe some girls would have been flattered by this. The guy wasn't your typical "creeper", after all--he was young, probably in his 20s, and not bad looking himself. He wasn't wolf-whistling or leering at my body. It was a compliment, right? He probably thought he'd made my day.

Somehow, I wasn't flattered. I was annoyed. My look wasn't meant to say "I don't believe you" but "Who do you think you are?" I didn't walk past for his benefit. I wasn't interested in his opinion. But somehow, this guy had the idea that all girls are desperate for male attention. That a girl who doesn't flaunt her body must be ashamed or self-conscious of it.

There's a strange paradox when it comes to words like "beautiful" and "pretty" and "sexy". For any other attribute, like kindness or honesty, the opinions of strangers are irrelevent. You can't assess the true strength of a person's character until you know them well. But when it comes to beauty, nothing your friends say counts. Your feelings of self-worth are placed in the hands of the people who know you least--that random guy on the street.

Did this twenty-something guy realize I'm still in high school? Did he care? As soon as a girl hits puberty, when she's reached a point where she looks adult, she's open to any and all appraisals of her physical appearance. Her beauty, and her sexiness, is defined by anyone who's brash enough to call out to her about it. For too long the media, and male-dominated society, has been given the authority to tell girls and women what "sexy" is--and by extension, how we should be.

Robert Pattinson Entertainment Weekly Magazine 3 September 2010 Cover Photo - United States 
Meg Ryan Harpers Bazaar Magazine December 2001 Cover Photo - United States

(Sorry about that last one--I've got Harry Potter on the mind lately.)

I don't know how I feel about "taking sexy back". In a way, girls and women redefining sexy is like blacks reclaiming "n-----" or gays reclaiming "queer", "f-----" and "d---". For some, it feels triumphant and true. But sometimes the negative connotations of these words can't be untangled from the words themselves. Can we arbitrarily ascribe a word like "sexy", which is descriptive of physical appearance, to positive attributes like confidence and intelligence?

For me, liberation comes from saying, "I'm not sexy." I'm not "pretty," and that's okay--really, it is. Because on my list of qualities to aspire to, those words don't even appear. Smart, compassionate, funny, determined, talented, loyal--those are the adjectives that come first.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Women Athletes

Cross-posted on the SPARK blog.

On Friday, October 22nd, I had the pleasure of attending the SPARK Summit at Hunter College and hearing Geena Davis speak. Almost any experience is sweetened by the knowledge that the rest of your classmates are sitting in school, but Davis' speech was thought-provoking in its own right.

Geena Davis is a Academy-Award winning actress best known for her role as Thelma in Thelma and Louise, a movie following the exploits of two women outlaws. Davis is an activist who has done great work promoting healthy body image and improved portrayal of gender in the media through her research institute's See Jane program. She's also a MENSA member, a mother of three, and--get this--nearly an Olympic-level athlete. 

Explaining this last, "random" appellation, Davis said she began to develop a serious interest in sports after learning baseball for her part in A League of Their Own. She  started taking archery lessons in 1997 after meeting Olympic gold medalist Justin Huish. Two years later, she competed in the Olympic semifinals for a place on the 2000 U.S. archery team. Since then, Genna Davis has worked with the Women's Sports Foundation to educate girl and women athletes about their rights under Title IX. In both her acting roles and sports activism, Davis encourages girls to take charge of their own destinies: "I'd rather play baseball than be the baseball player's girlfriend."

Athleticism has never been something I pride myself on, so I'm not sure why this aspect of Geena Davis' speech was so arresting to me. The determination and perseverance of women athletes inspires girls to achieve in all areas of their lives; according to Davis, "sports are 90 percent mental". The importance of sports for women, though, is strongly rooted in its physicality. In a world inundated with images of female frailty, sexual submissiveness, and airbrushed "beauty," the best way to reclaim our bodies is to use them.
Charlotte Cooper, the first female Olympic champion, won the Wimbledon five times. In a dress.
Serena Williams