I love her photographs — her site is called The Manipulator, for she was one of the first photographers to use exaggerated, almost cinematic digital manipulation to doctor her images. There’s no mistaking a Greenberg cover of a magazine (remember that awesome, funny, disturbing series of crying babies she called “End Times”?). I met her once — she’s scary brilliant, just like women ought to be more often.

About her series Glass Ceiling (see more here), she explains that as a college student,

…it was my assertion that this project of femininity is a (self-created) distraction from getting to business and living and enjoying one’s life as a woman. I knew this to be true as a 21 year old but I have lived it now. I chose not to obsess about my imperfect bodily state and do my work, but whether I like it or not the physical reality of being a woman still informs everything I do.

Hence she created these images that show the water knocking women into awkward positions, while the women absurdly wear heels to make themselves look sexy even though the shoes and, for that matter, the bathing suits hinder their project.

We will fail at this project of being female. Look and see thyself, my friends.

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One would love to see her saying something more realistic, like “Here’s my passport to putting food on my table and a roof over my head.” But as it turns out, even the classic Rosie the Riveter poster was more ambivalent than we’d like to believe, as I read recently at Sociological Images. Damn scholars, always putting a damper on our views of the past.

Another long flight for me today, for which I’ll be accompanied by Children of Heaven, as recommended by Smintheus from Unbossed.

I’m grading papers, so naturally all I want to do is anything other than grade papers.  But Christine O’Donnell’s new ad seems so analogous to the awful prose and twisted argumentation I’m reading from my undergrads that I couldn’t resist a study break.  “I’m not a witch,” she tells us.  “I’m you. … I’ll go to Washington and do what you’d do.”  Is it just me, or it this both absurd and brilliant?

“Saturday Night Live” did its best to mock the “witch” part of the ad — and rightly so, as this is easily the most mockable.  As truly weird as that is — indeed, I thought at first that by witch she meant the Barbara Bush-style euphemism for bitch, but I couldn’t imagine that anyone had called O’Donnell a bitch — what I’m really stuck on is the  “I’m you” comments.  I truly don’t know what to think.  Of course, I’m not from Delaware, but I’m fairly certain from everything I know about her that O’Donnell will most certainly not do what I would do if I could go to Washington.  The ad doesn’t tell us anything specific about what she’d do in Washington.  On the surface one might simply say that this is the most shamefaced, transparent political evasion ad in history.

But then there’s the ironed hair, the dark suit, the pearls, the adorably dimpled cheeks.  O’Donnell isn’t us — rather, she’s a Shirley Temple who’s grown up to do a very good job of appearing to possess gravitas.  She’s got just enough grade-school teacher in her to speak slowly and clearly, as if we’re eight years old.  But that’s not the worst political move in the current election cycle by a long shot.  She expresses a kind of gentle feminine affect custom-designed to seem less Mama Grizzly than like your earnest, well-intentioned best friend, or sister, or girlfriend.  She has no positions, only camera presence — and we can’t deny the presence.

Dumbest or smartest ad ever?  Let’s all remember the election that takes place in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and cry for our utter loss of reason in an overly media-savvy world.  We now have on our ballots the politicians we deserve.

Feminizing female athletes

13 September 2010

When it comes to diagnosing our crazy, conflicted relationship to powerful women, what better subject than female athletes?  These women can kick just about anyone’s ass, yet somehow discussion of their talent now has to include catty comments about their clothes and personalities.  Some athletes themselves seem to get caught up in this, wearing tight designer dresses and improbably small bikinis when playing their sports, makeup, and distracting nail polish, as if to feminize their hard muscles, aggression, and athletic superiority.         

Case in point:  Caroline Wozniacki’s US Open dress (designed by Stella McCartney!) was so tight that it persisted in riding up her butt during each point, requiring vigorous tugging down afterward.  Did it occur to no one that she needed to play tennis in this dress, because she is a world-class athlete, not a pretty plaything?  I vote that McCartney be banned from designing athletes’ dresses until she can be bothered to show that women can move while wearing them.  I became so annoyed by this display that I vented on the phone to a friend that if it’s all about pleasing male TV viewers, they should just make all women tennis players wear bikinis, as in beach volleyball.

But although that comment was intended to be a joke, it wasn’t a joke to the Olympics in 1994 and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) in 1999, which passed rules that female beach volleyball players had to wear bikinis of a certain skimpiness, while men wore baggy shorts and sometimes t-shirts.  That rule seems to have been relaxed in recent years due to vigorous objections by various international teams.  During the height of this controversy a few competitors, most notably Holly McPeak, shilled for the FIVB by insisting these “uniforms” are both practical and comfortable, but most admit it’s about drawing a large TV audience of men.  Really, “comfortable”? 

And then there’s the makeup, which for me is most objectionable on the girls who participate in international gymnastics.  It’s not just that the makeup and sparkles in their hair makes me wonder what ranking these competitions have amongst pedophiles (whose other favorite show might well be “Little Miss Perfect,” the reality TV show about pre-pubescent girls’ beauty contests).  It’s that these diminutive girl gymnasts are getting the message that if you’re going to compete at the highest level, you’ve got to girl-ify yourself — but for whom?  The judges?  The TV audience?  Please tell me they’ll keep bikinis off gymnasts, at least. 

Finally — and most revealing — are those female athletes who don’t play nice and prettify themselves, but embrace the fact that they’re blazing new ground for gender performance for all of us would-be tomboys.  There’s Brittney Griner, the sophomore basketball star from Baylor University, who decorates her own webpage with this (decidedly un-girlie) photo showing off her 6’8″ lankiness.  If I were to read the message of this photo, I’d say it tells us that she’s going to be sexy on her own damn terms.  (Ahem:  it’s working.)  Yet just last winter the New York Times put an entire article in its sports section asking a series of designers and modeling agents how they might prettify Griner.

Finally — and perhaps most special to my heart — there’s Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner and winner of the gold medal in the 800 meter race at the 2009 World Championships.  After winning last summer, she was forced to undergo a series of tests — mysterious ones at first, as they didn’t explain to her what was going on — to determine whether she was really female.  Despite worldwide controversy over this incident, it took the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF) almost a year to clear her for competition.  (Nota bene: when she was finally cleared, she immediately won two races in Finland.)  Despite having undergone perhaps the most  excruciating and potentially career-killing gender scrutiny of all, Semenya’s race appearances show her to be the super-human being she is.  She’s all about streamlined power and muscles.  I’m sorry, TV viewers, if that doesn’t seem quite feminine enough for you.  Women’s sports doesn’t have to be a site for confirming mainstream notions of femininity, much less pornified notions.  So let me suggest you just get over it.  

First let me begin with a scene at the US Open last weekend:  Maria Sharapova is battling Caroline Wozniacki, the top-ranked woman at this year’s tournament, and she should be winning.  Sharapova combines her nearly 6’3″ frame with a lupine fierceness and a seeming pleasure in tasting her opponents’ blood.  She hits her shots with such power that she screeches.  It baffles me that for so long she’s capitalized in advertisements on her blonde pinup girl good looks, as I find her terrifying:  on the court, Sharapova is all mean girl.  Especially when she bows her head and prepares to serve, then looks up from underneath her visor to glare at her opponent with an icy look of death.

So why isn’t she beating Wozniacki?  A major theme used to discuss this year’s wide-open women’s draw is nerves.  With that in mind it seems obvious that Sharapova’s beating herself.  She takes way too long to serve — then hits it wild.  For her second serve she pauses even longer, bouncing the ball endlessly, and then proceeds to whack it into the net (she committed 9 double-faults, the equivalent of more than two full games’ loss).  This prompts the commentators to remind us of her miserable performance at last year’s US Open, when she double-faulted 21 times in a match against Melanie Oudin.  When she gets them in to start a rally, she commits an unacceptable number of errors (36).  Her moments of true brilliance drive Wozniacki between sidelines and far back beyond the baseline; but in the end Sharapova loses 6-3, 6-4.  I am uncharacteristically crushed by the collapse of a player whose talents I’ve only grudgingly admired in the past, and I’m disturbed as I watch her struggle with her demons. 

I don’t know if the commentators are right that a remarkable number of female players suffer from these paralyzing nerves (unsurprisingly, male players’ problems have different gendered connotations:  men lose concentration, or perhaps they tighten up), but I’m interested in how women’s self-doubts, in combination with institutional sexism, can conflict with their ambitions.  In fact, I’m not just interested in these subjects, I’m affected by them.  It was prompted when Hattie responded to a post of mine in which I lamented the lack of recognition for a great film by a female director.  She complimented the post and said something like, “You could use some recognition too.”  How did I respond?  I deflected, as I always do when I receive compliments.  Why can’t I take a fucking compliment?

I see Sharapova as a metaphor for this issue because she’s at once intensely competitive, highly talented, and so burdened by self-doubt as to sabotage her own success.  In the past she’s always been willing to do what it takes to win — even be a bitch on the court to get under her opponents’ skin — but now there’s something else going on.  She can’t “just get over it.”  It’s only made worse by the fact that she knows she could — should — beat Wozniacki.  When she struggles, agonizingly, trying to get a serve in, I see some of my own struggles to write effectively and persuasively as an academic, to thrive in a world that benefits scholars who are both prolific and self-promoting.  Watching Sharapova fight herself makes me remember how I painstakingly eked out the final revisions on my book, and how terrible I am at self-promotion.   

So many women strivers have that extra opponent in the room with them.  Even if they’re perfectly comfortable with being ambitious, it’s the execution that causes such emotional gymnastics.  In my case, getting my book done was excruciating, and there’s still a chapter I can’t look at.  All along the way I worried about a thousand other things — being a good enough teacher so I wouldn’t leave class feeling ashamed; being a good colleague and mentor; getting back to see my parents often enough that I wouldn’t feel like a terrible daughter.  (And then there’s the other crap:  Does this bra make my back fat bulge out?  Why do I insist on wearing shoes of torture even when I have blisters everywhere?  Why can’t my partner ever make dinner without getting food detritus on everything within a 12-foot radius?)  In other words, I spent a lot of time worrying about how not to fail at juggling a number of balls, rather than compartmentalizing and playing like, say, Rafael Nadal, whose mind is only on one thing.  I watch him play and I see so clearly the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose.

But it’s more than just inner demons, isn’t it?  It’s also the external ones, like the students who pronounce their female professors to be bitches — which, as far as I can tell, means a woman who has power and uses it without apology.  It can affect one’s personal relationships:  one friend had her (male) partner accuse her of being “careerist” as a factor during their breakup.  Then there are the elite white conservative men who oversee promotions and selectively dole out raises.  In my department, the male professors gossip openly about young faculty — which of the younger men are not just brilliant but good guys, which of the younger women are in trouble for tenure because they’re not yet done with their books.  (Kudos to Servetus for terming them her Dementors, à la Harry Potter, sucking out all hope and life from us.)  But you see, not being a bitch almost inevitably eliminates the possibility of their calling you brilliant, because they don’t possess a stereotype that combines “nice” and “brilliant.”  When my book won a major book prize in my field, for example, one could sense the profound cognitive dissonance among a portion of my colleagues.

I’m not saying that all women face such inner and outer demons (we can all think of an exception) but I know far too many ambitious, talented women who do.  And most critics seem to recognize only one part of this phenomenon when they advance their critiques.  Take, for example, Clay Shirky’s “Rant About Women,” in which he tried to understand the broader phenomenon of why women so seldom engaged in professional self-promotion.  Taking a supportive but tough-love position, he declared that “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” to put themselves forward to their own advantage.  Not only that, he continued, women will avoid being “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”  Mea culpa.  Shirky is most certainly right when he diagnoses women as generally shying away from such behavior — but what about the fact that many women fear being punished for it, having readily witnessed such punishments of other women?

Then there’s the hullabaloo over Jody Picoult and Jennifer Weiner’s criticism of the Jonathan Franzen love-fest.  When Time magazine put Franzen on its cover with the headline, “GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST,” and the New York Times Book Review‘s editor-in-chief put his own glowing review of the book on the cover, declaring in the first sentence that the book is “a masterpiece of American fiction,” Picoult and Weiner expressed exasperation.  They’re not complaining that they should have received the same attention; nor are they saying Franzen doesn’t deserve acclaim.  To summarize, in Weiner’s words:

“The only mention my books have ever gotten from the Times have been the occasional single sentence and, if I’m lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece:  ‘Look! Here’s a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!’  I don’t write literary fiction — I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today.  Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets?  Nope.  Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby?  Absolutely.

…I think it’s irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites – those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed, or the Q and A edited and condensed by Deborah Solomon — the Times tends to pick white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs … white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.”

Picoult and Weiner’s complaints are welcome indeed, especially coming from two eminently successful authors who have no complaints when they get their royalty checks.  But this leads me to two institutions that seek to deal with women’s demons as well as their Dementors.  One is the Op-Ed Project, designed to offer advice and assistance for women who want to publish op-ed pieces.  Only about 10% of such pieces are written by women, making these opinion-setting pages of the newspapers shockingly male-dominated.  This institution recognizes that women writers require not just assistance with placement — convincing (unconsciously?) sexist editors to publish something — but with the demons that stop them from sending out the damn piece to begin with.  Likewise, there’s Mslexia magazine for women writers, which contained in its first issue a beautifully astute assessment of the bizarre position of women writers in the marketplace

These are some of the reasons why I get so frustrated when Slate wonders if Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Wesport is simply “chick lit,” when films about black women get categorized as some kind of sub-genre of “chick flicks,” why female politicians get criticized for their looks and their clothes (remember when Elena Kagan was criticized for sitting with her legs slightly too far apart?).  All of these things exaggerate the demons women are already wrestling with in their professions.  And then we get told that we’re not succeeding because we don’t want it enough — because of our own “choices.”

And finally:  not long after learning I’d won a book prize, I found myself in conversation with a man whose excellent (and prize-winning) book had been one of the contenders.  “You won that prize?!  That was the one I really wanted to win!” he said.  After all this time, I’m still twisted up about that conversation:  still wondering whether he was both complimenting me and expressing confusion about why his book hadn’t topped mine; still convinced that book prizes are just as arbitrary as job offers; still uncertain about how to talk about the prize with people I consider my peers.  (It’s worth noting I had no problem announcing this news to my university’s senior colleagues, Dementors, and administrators, however.)  In short, like Sharapova, I’m still bouncing that ball before a serve, wrestling with these demons, trying too hard not to lose.

You’d think they would, considering how much they talk about it.  “Is Nikki Haley a Feminist?” asks one headline.  “Is the Tea Party a Feminist Movement?” asks another.  “Sex Addiction is a Feminist Victory” announces a third.  All of these articles are written by Hanna Rosin, one of the co-founders of Double X (the site’s terrible women’s blog, about which I’ve complained before) and a contributing editor for the Atlantic monthly.  In asking such preposterous questions — and, by the way, failing to answer them — Rosin denudes the word feminism of all meaning and contributes to the erasure of the political need for the equality of the sexes, which itself is anti-feminist behavior.  She’s not alone at Slate; Amanda Marcotte’s essay claims that Sarah Palin’s version of feminism has us all asking “anxious questions”:

Does the word feminism mean anything at all?  Does merely wearing a power suit and smart-girl glasses automatically make you a feminist?

THESE ARE STUPID QUESTIONS that good journalists would not ask.  Feminism means a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, and it denotes the movement to achieve that equality.  It’s in the dictionary.  But in Rosin’s hands, “feminist” seems to mean “woman,” and possibly a vague kind of “pro-woman” perspective.  Sometimes it means “a woman who has some degree of power.”  Or, “powerful woman who complains that she has received criticism” (this is how Palin and Haley count as feminists).  None of her essays treat a woman or group expressing any interest whatsoever in the equality of the sexes.  None of her essays discuss even the possibility the public rise of such virulent anti-feminists might indirectly result in the equality of the sexes.  Marcotte comes up with the tortured term “feminist anti-feminist” to describe women like Palin:

She’s just the latest incarnation of a long and noble line of feminist anti-feminists:  women who call themselves feminist but also object to the existence of the feminist movement and organize in opposition to it.

I’m sorry, but doesn’t that make them ignorant anti-feminists?

Which begs the question, are Rosin and Marcotte ignorant too?  I believe it’s far worse than that:  I think they’re canny journalists who get paid a lot to cover the gender dynamics of anti-feminist right-wing women.  When they play the provocateur by asking such offensive questions as “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” they get a lot of responses, which translates to more attention from their publisher, which translates to more advertising revenue.

They’re canny, but they’re also doing anti-feminist work for the devil.  If journalists act as if the  term is so confusing, the vital importance of fighting for equal rights is eaten away.  No one took it seriously when Palin claimed she had foreign policy experience because Alaska is next to Russia; why should we take it seriously when she claims to be a feminist?  It is journalists’ job to be skeptical, not to denude language and politics of meaning.  Rosin likewise enjoys asking the provocative question, “Who owns feminism?” ask if us selfish feminists have encircled it with velvet ropes.  If the KKK announced itself to be an “anti-racist” organization despite all evidence to the contrary, would Rosin ask “Who owns anti-racism?”  By publishing such frequent pieces, Slate contributes to an anti-feminism in American culture more generally.

Of course journalists should think seriously about the gendered implications of so many women in right-wing politics.  Of course they should ask such questions as whether such women might alter our society’s views of powerful women.  Just don’t throw around the word “feminism” as if it has no independent meaning.

P. S.  At first I planned to respond to Rosin’s most recent Atlantic piece, “The End of Men,” in which she visits a community college, notes that there are more female students than male students, and extrapolates that the end of the world is nigh for men.  But then I read the long list of crazy online responses to it and became too demoralized.  Please read it yourselves and email me with intelligent thoughts.

Women march topless in Portland, Maine!

According to the Boston Globe, these two dozen or so women marched to make the point that “a topless woman out in public shouldn’t attract any more attention than a man who walks around without a shirt.”  Not all of the 367 articles about this event mentioned that fact, but some journalists relished what they characterized as the “hypocrisy” of the marchers — “Topless Women Shocked that People Like to Watch Topless Women,” snarked CBS News.

Whatever.  I’m all for women going topless, and for it being not a very big deal — and I have no problem with the marchers’ tactics because thanks to them, I now know that women are legally permitted to go topless in public in Maine, New York, Hawaii, Texas, and Ohio.  Yay, Texas!  One of those rare chances to think that the state is more permissive than California.  (Let’s just not fool ourselves that this story is anything more than grist for the usual mill.)