A Zero Sum Game

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I’m going to need you guys to explain something for me. We’ve talked about this topic before on the blog, the propagation of the idea that the advancement of women comes at the expense of men and that there is some sort of power struggle happening in our society and any success or promotion of issues that impact women more directly is negative for men.

I just don’t understand the value of promoting this type of thinking. The author of the article The End of Men, which we’ve talked about here and caused a lot of controversy when it was released last year, was featured in Slate Magazine lately in order to discuss this issue and promote a debate that she will be having on this topic later this month. To remind us, Rosin explains that men are falling behind is the job market because they have failed to adapt to the more stereotypically feminine skill set that is become valuable in our postindustrial economy, skills such communication, empathy, social intelligence and consensus building. For Rosin, there has been a shift in society that is seeing women advancing and men falling behind. Now women have become the dominant gender.

This might be a slightly simplistic presentation of Rosin’s ideas but I’m less interested in the specifics of her arguments right now but rather the underlying assumptions she’s making about human behavior and human interaction. She is very much working within the framework of competition—that success looks a certain way and that there can only be a limited number of people who will be able to achieve this success. She’s not making a case on whether the end of men and the dominance of women is a good thing or a bad thing necessarily but just that it’s a fact; it’s the reality of our current economic order.

What I struggle to understand, however, is the value of engaging in this sort of conversation about interactions between men and women. What’s the conversation hoping to achieve? Why are we seeing these interactions as a zero sum game in which there are winners and losers? This thinking is premised in an understanding that there will always be those at the top and those are the bottom, that the success of one sector of society will necessarily come at the expense of the other. But that type of thinking has gotten us into the inherently competitive social reality in which we now exist. I think we’re all losers now, trapped in a reality that tells us that because of how we look, where we live, and what we do, we have act in a certain way.

Our understanding of our social reality should be advancing, should be building on itself and should recognize the inherent interconnectedness of the well being and welfare of all human beings that is an inescapable fact of reality. Yet continually working within frameworks and thinking that espousing competition and zero sum games doesn’t allow us to advance. It’s the same thinking that has shaped our social reality for years and has allowed for the perpetuation of the same broken systems and institutions which promote sexism, racism, classism, war and violence.

So I just have to ask, why?

Contemplating Equality

Today’s personal account of trying to engender equality comes from Oak.

I was introduced to the term describing the advancement of understanding and actions between men and women, “gender equality”, when I came in contact with the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith when I was nineteen years old. By that point, I had already absorbed much of the social hype regarding how a “man” and “woman” should behave and experienced its shortcomings. I had said, done and heard so much regarding so many less-than-favorable behaviors and postures, and found myself in front of a mirror. A mirror that wouldn’t be ignored or avoided when the term that had been nagging at my subconscious all these years found me. In the mirror I saw a hurt boy struggling to understand his place in the universe, and within the social spaces he traverses, and I often have to converse with him to get a better gander at what I’ve learned and have yet to learn. This conversation would always be incomplete without some of the major players in the social space: Pops, Moms, Lil Sis and My Peers.

Pops 

Pops grew up in a highly rigid atmosphere within Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a son to a Priest. This environment had the strange blend of the fear of God and the guilt felt of ones’ own shortcomings. My grandfather wasn’t a monster, but had some very specific training about a woman’s “place” according to a particular Biblical interpretation, and many mixed messages were passed along to his children about what that “place” should look like. Within the household of 3 boys and a girl, maids would turn up pregnant from the men in the household, and new branches of my extended family thus formed. Pops, having internalized these values, went on to have many sexual exploits with women as a source of pleasure rather than a true partner in life to be valued as an equal. This pattern held through his meeting my mother at a club in Spain, where the natural attraction brought them together through dancing and partying. The perceived compatibility of this couple brought them to decide to get married because…that’s what you’re supposed to do eventually, right? 

Moms

Moms grew up the first of two children in an African-American family that valued education and the arts. She was raised by a music teacher who was driven to succeed in a world where there were very few people of color in prominent positions in society, and was determined to be one of them. Moms was brought into dance, singing and acting lessons, and many other artistic areas that would develop in her a sense of appreciation for the act of creation. Her younger brother was somewhat less inclined artistically, but was given preference in his education, and many stories could highlight how she came to feel less valued and subservient to the males around her who simply didn’t consider that her role in society could be as important as the man that she found to take care of her. As she grew up, her experiences with men developed a pattern of codependency and acquiescence to subservience which carried over into her meeting Pops.

They decided to get married and start a life together. Pops was in Medical school and Moms was studying education in Valencia, Spain, and came together in the US to pursue a path towards material prosperity. My father entered Chiropractic school, and my mother soon had a little Oak in her womb. During this time, Moms was contemplating spirituality for this little person growing within, and found a community to relate to with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The teachings that she internalized informed her that her life had to change, and change it did. This change seemed somewhat abrupt to Pops, and he didn’t gain receptivity to the teachings of Moms’s exciting and new faith. Over time, the things that brought them together faded away. Dancing and partying were now “Things of the World” to Moms, and she wanted no part of it. Their sexual relationship, the very fabric of what their initial relationship was based upon, became strained and faded into the distance. Lil Sis was born, and we moved to the Caribbean where Pops would open a practice. Infidelity and distance began to seriously strain the relationship, and it was determined that the physical location was the culprit, and a move back to the US would be a reprieve from the challenges that Moms and Pops faced, not to mention they had a little boy about to go into preschool. Both of them were trained that the women in the family, to some extent, play a role of servitude to men, and that they were never to be “heads” of the household. That men and women could be “equal” in any practical sense is to this day a puzzling and preposterous thought for them.

Lil Sis brought an interesting new element into the mix, because I was charged by my parents to be a good example and protect her. In that role, I had to challenge even the examples that my parents set in how they saw the role of women in society. I would have to stand up to bullies, teach her to stand up for herself, and ultimately, that role paved the way for my understanding of why calling a female anything less than noble was unacceptable, for I wouldn’t want anyone to refer to my sister in such a way. I also learned that the often patronizing role of men as “protectors of women” was an ego trap, which is fraught with false responsibility and devoid of empowerment of our female family. My most major regret in providing an example to Lil Sis is that I fall into the social pressure trap that many young boys fall into regarding sexuality. Most young boys when I was growing up had little to no sexual experience, but felt the need to prove their “manliness” by boasting of their sexual experience, if not prowess. The social implications for me for being truthful about my utter lack of experience with females had been ridicule and allusions if not condemnations regarding my possible interest in males instead. All of that played on my young brain when my Lil Sis began to ask about all things sexual, and I streamed my usual ridiculous web of tales that I had on hand for just the occasion. Little to knowledge, my response compounded with the other social influences that she was exposed her to actually brought her to experimenting and losing her virginity even before I did. Many things followed that I won’t recount, but it instilled in me a profound lesson on how we can truly be influenced and influence each other. She has grown into a strong woman who I respect far beyond the bonds of family, and I am thankful for the positive influence I may have had in light of my earlier blunders…

My peers informed me of the multitudinous contradictions between what one presents publicly to an audience that doesn’t know you from what they practiced in private. The same kids who would refer to or call a woman a “bitch” in a heartbeat, would speak with the utmost respect to their own mothers at home in most cases. If one said anything untoward about their mothers or sisters, there would invariably be a violent altercation with the source of the offense. Seeing this dissonance made me question a lot about the way we were being socialized and socializing each other, for it seemed to all make little sense. 

All of that baggage traveled with me over the years as I explored the space that I occupied with women, and much of the various arguments made on the topic flow through my head as I process my role in the process of understanding gender equality. Many women have been socialized to accept and even defend their role of subservience or inadequacy in covert and overt ways, even those who have been empowered in some ways. Questions that this now married boy asks are: What does gender equality look like within a marriage? Does it mean that we hyper-emphasize the responsibilities that were held to be traditionally “women’s work” as valuable when the family set-up is one that may on the surface look like the traditional model? Do we pressure men to suppress their masculinity in order to prove that they are committed to whatever sacrifice it takes to be the “new man”? Do we ask women to be more like men in ways that runs counter to the unique and powerful station that women naturally bring to the table? How do we treat a couple who is pregnant or has a child, and do we value each individual’s contributions equally? Do we strive to bring equality in all ways or do we favor the traditionally oppressed at the risk of creating a new type of oppression? My answers to these and other questions remains unclear…

 

Interested in sharing your experience promoting the equality of women and men? write a post and send it to engenderingequality@gmail.com

What is the Role of Gender Roles?

Firstly, I should apologize for my prolonged absence from the blog. I was traveling for work and assumed I’d still have the opportunity to blog but that never really worked out so here I am 6 weeks later, back in the office and back on engendering equality.

A very interesting point came up during my travels that I thought would be useful to bring up here. I was in Uganda, for part of the time, studying the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity’s document on the equality of women and men with a non-governmental organization that focuses on the advancement of women and the topic of gender roles was brought up.

The organization we were meeting with focuses specifically on food security, so we were discussing what type of conversations they have with the people they work with in the villages. One of the women at the organization explained that most of the agricultural work is left to the old women and young girls, the youthful energetic ones rarely take part and yet they are among those benefitting from this work. The staff members were talking about the importance of creating a strong sense of community within the village so that everyone is participating in the production of food and everyone has enough to eat. It was clear to them that restructuring communities and promoting gender equality will require profound changes in the minds and hearts of people.

Two of the staff members at the NGO then began to discuss how they had actively begun to promote equality between women and men in their homes. One of the female staff members explained that she has three boys and one girl and that in her home, it was everyone’s responsibility to contribute to the chores. Her neighbors thought it was very strange that she made her sons participate in cooking. Normally the boys go and play and come back and eat. She said that in many homes in Uganda, boys will not do what is regarded as woman’s work. The male staff member agreed as he is an active contributor to the chores in his home, including making dinner and fetching water, much to the confusion of his neighbors.

The challenge of men taking more of an active role in the home is not limited to just Uganda, this subject was recently discussed in the New York Times**, reflecting on this issue in the United States and across Europe. While it has become easier for women to work outside of the home, men have been slower to participate in work around the house. The series of articles attempts to explore why this is so, although the conversation is often stuck in this very narrow understanding of work and success. They are written from the perspective that our current employment structure is best and that we have to think of ways in which we can get more women to be involved in this system. Yet it is clear that our current emphasis on material gain is not without its problems and has contributed to this stark division of work inside and outside the home, making it an either or situation, and promoting one (working outside the home) as having more value than the other.

Achieving total parity around the division of work between women and men inside and outside the home isn’t the benchmark of equality. Yet the lack of mobility regarding this issue is indicative of gender norms which stand in the way of equality. If so much of our identity as women and men is the acts that we perform and the responsibilities we have around the home, we will continue to perpetuate inequalities. What we need is the space in which to reflect on the roles that we assume to be natural and ask ourselves, where did they come from and what is their purpose?

 

**for some reason its not letting me link now, you can find the articles here http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/07/05/how-can-we-get-men-to-do-more-at-home

Strong is Beautiful. Or maybe Strong is just Strong and that’s Okay.

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Summer 2011 – time for the women’s World Cup.

This time last summer, my friends and I gathered every evening to watch whatever game from the men’s World Cup that was on that day. Without fail we would rush home from work, eat our sunflower seeds and spend the next two 90 minutes yelling at the TV.

And this summer?

I haven’t watched a single game of this World Cup. Every so often I catch the results of one of the games if it happens to come up in the headlines of one of the news websites I’m reading.

Clearly I’m not the only one paying less attention to female sports. An article in Time magazine explains that a recent study showed that across TV and print media in the US, female athletics makes up about 8% of the overall sports coverage. In an attempt to counteract the lack of coverage and increase viewership, female sports associations have been seeking to drive up publicity for their sport through more aggressive advertising.

One example of this is the Women’s Tennis Association, which launched the Strong is Beautiful campaign. In its video segments, female tennis stars are shown hitting the ball in slow motion as they explain their love of the game in a voiceover. Obviously the emphasis on the female form and beauty has drawn criticism. The article mentioned above explains, “when female athletes are featured in ads, it tends to be in ways that hyperfeminize them rather than highlight their athletic competence.”

A similar approach was taken by members of the female German national soccer team, with several players deciding to pose in Playboy magazine in their underwear, explaining, “we want to disprove the cliché that all female footballers are butch. The message is: look, we are very normal — and lovely — girls!” The article makes the overall point that advertisements focusing on female athletics seem to by tied up in the context in which the public is comfortable looking at women. Essentially the idea that women can be strong, powerful athletes has to be curbed by the idea that they are beautiful as well. To simply be strong and capable athletes would be off putting, it’s not how society likes to see its women. We like our women beautiful.

I guess. So say the advertising and athletic associations that are desperate for money and funding and somewhere along the way they got to decide how we like to view women. As it explains in the document, “media systems work to naturalize the messages and habits of thought they propogate, until these messages and habits begin to appear as normal, inevitable features of social life.” So maybe these media messages aren’t the norm, they aren’t what people really want. Maybe there is a market out there for people who just enjoy sports; who enjoying watching people play to their fullest capacity. Maybe they just need a helping hand to realize what they are missing and should be reminded through images of athletes doing what they do best not looking their best. People like me.

A Few Thoughts on Weddings and Wedding-Related Reality TV

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Today’s personal account of trying to engender equality comes from Chloë.

I never cared much for fantasizing about my future wedding, nor do I believe the (Western?) myth that all little girls do it. It was not until I had to plan my own wedding (with help from my now-husband) that I fully realized what madness is going on.

I observed—with apprehension—that weddings are becoming increasingly lavish. They cost incredible amounts of money that could otherwise be used to establish a somewhat secure life for a couple. They involve great and greater amounts of complexity in terms of clothing, food, gifts, decoration, and entertainment. They invite many and more members of extended families and circles of friends and acquaintances. And it’s not only in North America (where I live); I’ve heard tales of enormous, bank-breaking weddings from friends in India, China, and other places—tales that would strike fear into humble hearts.

Now, somehow, our permissive culture has turned wedding-related materialism and selfishness into “entertainment”. Sarah Haskins sums it up with insight and humor in one of her “Target Women” videos (which satirize advertising that employs gender stereotypes):

These “reality” shows paint brides as manipulative, controlling, shallow, and self-obsessed. Grooms are painted either as impotent slobs or indifferent chumps. Where is the equality in that? These shows highlight inequality as well as the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

The most beautiful and touching weddings I’ve been to have upheld both bride and groom as contributors to a new family, a new social institution (however small in scale), and have asserted that both members accept responsibility for the well-being of their relationship.

I suppose I can only speak from my experience when it comes to equality on the ground, so I will:

As I began to plan my own wedding, I made efforts to strike a balance between humility and hospitality. We wanted to host and be generous to our dear family and friends, yet we wanted to emphasize that the marriage was to be more important than the event of getting married, no matter how joyful and reverent it was. We took to heart certain examples set by the humble and greater-purpose-driven figures of religious history—in particular, those from the Baha’i Faith, since my husband and I are Baha’is: we read about the modest weddings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi (in The Priceless Pearl). We found it valuable to seek inspiration about principles and attitudes, even in the matter of wedding planning.

Yet we also had to contend with the extravagant climate. For example: I walked into a bridal shop last summer and was immediately bombarded by an overbearing busy bee who aggressively insisted that I fill out a form with all my personal information and details about my wedding (date, theme, etc.) before I peruse the store merchandise—which I was afterward sharply instructed to do (quickly, and with no shoes on, presumably so as not to sully anything). The gowns began at $1000 and ranged in color from “white” to “eggshell” to “ivory”.

I left the store. I won’t bore you with the details of my wedding, but I wore a reasonably priced blue dress. A select group of immediate family and dear friends gathered for a weekend, went tobogganing together, ate vegetarian food, and played board games. We wanted not only a just, moderate, joyful wedding, but a just, moderate, joyful marriage. We had a brief but lovely ceremony, and then it was over. On with the business of being married—and it is going very well; we both work to be equal participants in a balanced relationship. Now the only thing left to do is keep at it for the rest of our lives….

Interested in sharing your experience promoting the equality of women and men? write a post and send it to engenderingequality@gmail.com

The Smurfette Principle

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“The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female in an ensemble of male characters, in spite of the fact that roughly half of the human race is female.”

The website Feminist Frequency has recently started posting videos that explore the  tropes women are placed into when they are depicted in popular media. These short videos explain that a trope is a “common pattern in a story or recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it is overused.” Often, these tropes depict stereotypes. Enter the Smurfette Principle.

We’re constantly being bombared by all sorts of different images in the media and whether we like it or not these depictions begin to inform our perception of reality. Therefore the meager presence of women, especially women with diverse looks and opinions, in our mainstream media, serves to undercut the equality of women and men. The lack of visibility of women serves to propogate the idea that women are the minority and makes it seem as though issues that impact women are only interesting to women. It creates a sort of “otherness.” The lack of females in the media are a reflection of a male centered society, illustrating that we place priorities on men, men’s stories and the things men do.

The video elaporates:

Further female tropes discussed include the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Women in Refridgerators and The Evil Demon Seductress.

Boys will be Boys? Does it Matter?

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I came across this article from the New York Times that was discussing a new challenge for parents – raising children who do not assume typical gender roles. The article highlights little boys who enjoy dressing up and playing with dolls and girls who want to wear their hair short and play sports with their brothers. This article seems to be a product of the growing number of books and support groups providing advice to parents of children who don’t fit into the normal gender roles.

The thing that stands out to me is that in a rush to avoid putting their children in one category, not allowing gender stereotypes to define their children, parents are rushing to put their kids into other categories such as gay, transgendered, effeminate, masculine, etc. And maybe for some of those kids those categories are the reality. Yet at the same time, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that these kids just like these certain toys, games, style of clothing, with little implication on how the choices and life they will lead at an older age. It seems like we can’t get away from seeking to take certain facets of one’s personality and making it the core of their identity, even in an attempt to be “open minded” and “non judgmental”.

Obviously for the parents featured in the article, this practice is coming out of love for the child and a true desire to want to create a safe and nurturing environment in which their children can grow. Parents don’t want their children to feel as though they can’t be who they truly are. But what does it mean to assume the child is what they do or what they like?

It seems that for many of the parents, social acceptability was something they worried about for their kids. They wanted their children to feel as though what they did and how they behaved was “normal” and just like everybody else. But maybe the greater lesson to the children could be that when they interact with other people they shouldn’t look at people based on what they do and their likes and dislikes but who they are – a human being with the capacity to love, laugh, show kindness, justice and generosity who happens to have a wide range of interests and hobbies. This to me seems like a better way to create acceptance.

Twofold Transformation

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I wanted to share this Ted Talk from Layli Miller-Muro, founder of the Tahirih Justice Center, as she discusses the importance of transforming ourselves and our institutions as a means of achieving the equality of women and men. Sometimes in the process of trying to engender equality we can forget that it will take more than just changing our own views or the views of those around us. We really have to change systems and laws which are so much apart of the perpetuation of inequality. Its not enough to simply promote equality within these broken systems and processes. Also the importance of doing this, as Miller-Muro points out, is something that necessarily involves both men and women.

The Gender Free Child

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 A quick glance at a newspaper reveals that many of the problems that exist in the world today are related to issues of gender inequality. So does that mean that the solution can be found in getting rid of gender all together?

A couple in Toronto has decided that they aren’t going to be sharing the gender of their child with others. After the baby was born the parents send out a message to family and friends explaining, “we’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).” The couple believes that our culture is obsessed with gender and that gender dictates much of how people treat and respond to others. They believe they are giving their baby the freedom to choose who it wants to be without assigned characteristics based on other people’s understandings of gender identity. They feel like parents make too many decisions for their children, and this is a decision they feel best left to the children themselves.

After being interviewed for an article in the Toronto Star, the topic of the genderless child went viral. Commentators flooded the newspaper with their thoughts and concerns. Numerous articles have been written about it. Talk show hosts have featured segments discussing the positives and negatives of such an act.

Much of the criticism of the couples’ decision comes from concerns that the child will be a social experiment. Others express concern that by not acknowledging that the baby has a gender, parents are enforcing the idea that gender is a problem. Some argue that they are making gender a bigger deal than it needs to be by not identifying it; rather gender is just one part of who you are.

The concept of gender not being fixed is not new. In certain circles, people regularly talk about gender not being binary (simply masculine and feminine), the difference between gender and sex and gender identity and gender expression. Yet the decision to actively promote a “gender free” child seems to elicit strong feelings in many people.

Is the way to combat the ruinous consequences of placing gender at the center of someone’s identity simply to ignore gender all together? Is this the way in which to promote equality?

Run the World (Lies)

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We’ve talked about the concept of girl power here before. Here’s another thought on the problem of girl power.

Nineteen Percent shares her thoughts on Beyonce’s latest video “Run the World (Girls)”. She also prefaces her thoughts by saying the following, “It’s a song. I get it. It’s just a song. This video is not about Beyonce. It’s not even really about this song. My point is NOT that she shouldn’t have made this song because of X, Y, and Z. My point IS: Oh, Look! X, Y, and Z exist and this song is a great tie-in to a discussion of feminism.”