The ever-useful straw feminist, academic edition

17 October 2011

According to Dr. Karen, academic mentor-for-hire and blogger at The Professor Is In, women academics have to start acting like men — and just when she’s about to hand out some helpful advice, she decides she needs to create some straw “feminists” who “disagree” with her:

Some feminists don’t like the Dr. Karen method. By the Dr. Karen method I mean my practice of telling women to stop acting “like girls” and to start learning to recognize and master the codes of power and authority that operate in academic settings, which are almost entirely derived from male patterns of behavior.

Damn! if we’re not ball-busting, man-hating, hairy-legged wet blankets, we’re clueless utopians who have unrealistic notions about how soft, consensus-building chanting circles can change academia. Just how fucking plastic is this notion of a feminist?

There are two things wrong with Dr. Karen’s statement, and one thing right with it. She’s right when she says women can benefit by not portraying themselves as free of confidence, value, and directness. “Speak in short declarative sentences without rambling,” she says. “Stop apologizing. Stop focusing on what you didn’t do and don’t know.” It should be helpful to women to “nurture less” and to “master the straight, direct, level gaze.” Dr. Karen: I am a feminist, and I am on board with all of this advice. The two problems with your advice are: who are these phantom feminists you insist on deriding? and why don’t you talk about the fact that many women academics who don’t “act like girls” are, instead, described as “bitches” by their colleagues?

With great consistency, audiences with feminist tendencies object. “No!” they insist. “That’s terrible advice! We should be telling young women to reject those behaviors, because they are the very behaviors that make academia cold and isolating. We should be telling young women to be MORE collaborative, more nurturing, more caring! We should encourage a variety of ways of being, because women’s ways of being are equally valid!”

On top of these unnamed “feminists,” Dr. Karen quotes at length the media scholar Clay Shirky, whose “Rant Against Women” blog post earned a lot of media attention, including from me. Shirky later acknowledged that his prescriptions didn’t take into account the fact that many bolder and less self-effacing women are punished for not being appropriately feminine. In the end, he was forced to admit that women are forced to walk a fine (if not impossible) line in the professional world. Dr. Karen, in contrast, ignores the complexity of the situation to jump on an easy bandwagon: let’s blame “feminists” for advocating women’s weakness in a push-and-pull world.

Let’s be realistic. All women get these days is vague advice: do more of this, but not too much, if you want to be taken seriously. Wear makeup, but not too much. Buy clothing that shows off your body, but not too much so. Be more direct and less self-effacing, but not so much that you’ll be seen as a bitch. Is it any wonder we all have whiplash, with this kind of advice?

To quote my blogging idol, Twisty Faster, “The femininity game is like Vegas. It guarantees that you will eventually lose, so the house always comes out ahead.”

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7 Responses to “The ever-useful straw feminist, academic edition”

  1. servetus Says:

    One might say the same thing about the power game.

    Kelsky tires me out. I don’t want to reproduce anything about the networks of power used to destroy careers. Nothing.

    • Didion Says:

      It’s helpful to remember that she gets to stand outside academia and tell us what to do, but doesn’t have to wrangle with the actual bullshit herself. If she starts telling women to wear makeup on the job (but not too much!), I’m deleting her RSS feed from my email.

      • servetus Says:

        I kind of want to say, dude, you participated in promoting yourself successfully through that power structure, and where are you now? Outside the building, throwing stones. Too damaged to continue. I know of what i speak.

      • Didion Says:

        Except her case is even more bizarre: she seems to be saying, “I know of what I speak (because I used to be there myself before I realized I could be infinitely happier as a little fish that feeds off the misery that surrounds the big fish) so let me tell you how to play the game by their rules and win!”

      • servetus Says:

        I suppose everyone including me has her own particular sort of rhetorical kink that’s developed around this situation. I’m sure she has her reasons. And what i *don’t* want to do is call her “shrill.” I’m just so tired of replicating these problems.


  2. heyy.. it was just awesome,iwant to express it all.. … 🙂 🙂
    i copied some content for my blog that deals with the same.. i hope you dont mind..


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