Monday, August 24, 2009

Five Minutes of Fame

I'm guest blogging over at Jezebel this week. (Hat tip to Amanda for the great photo!)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Scientists As Organizers?

I interviewed Chris Mooney about his new co-authored book, Unscientific America, over at Campus Progress today. Here's what he had to say about how science is (un)like feminism:
It seems to me it almost has some parallels with the battles that the reproductive rights community goes through, in that they're constantly trying to rework messaging and things like that, but the polling numbers roughly stay the same year after year, decade after decade. Do you see those similarities?

I'm willing to buy it, [though] I don't know the [issue of reproductive rights] as well. I know that it's a long, hard-fought battle. But to me, you're saying that the reproductive rights groups are constantly working on their messaging, and I believe that they probably are. I don't think that's true of the science groups. Maybe some of them, but in science it's different, because there's this whole thing where you're not supposed to have messaging. It's seen as a lack of integrity. And there's no coordinated strategy in the science world about how to handle this.
Read the whole thing.

'Mad Men' Shows 'Slut' Is Relative

Ann Friedman writes about the influence women writers are have on Mad Men's plot relating to the female characters:
And indeed, I love how the show paints an unvarnished picture of '50s gender roles and how the female characters are so three-dimensional. They don't easily map onto the sorts of stereotypes prevalent in TV shows and movies set in all decades. The bookish achiever (Peggy) is also kind of a slut. The slut (Joan) is also kind of a bookish achiever. And the devoted wife (Betty) is primed for a feminist awakening. (I've often wondered if the character was named after Betty Friedan.)
But commenter vwom asks:
What is a "slut" exactly?
I think one of the cool things about Mad Men is it challenges some of the stereotypes we have even today. Peggy, it becomes clear in the second season, is very different from her Catholic family. Even though Peggy doesn't seem to have a particularly active sex life (especially in comparison to other characters on the show), her family views her as a radical slut. Her sister breaks down into tears in a confession when she tells the priest how much she resents her sister who has a lot of freedom but leads what she views as a sinful lifestyle.

This all brings into focus the idea that the term "slut" is relative. When I think back to high school and middle school, I realize that girls that may not have ever had sex were viewed as "slutty" because they were viewed as such. The term has little to do with one's actual sexual activity and more to do with the way we slander women and the idea of women as sexual beings. It's a way to attack women, much like the term "bitch" is. Some women, like Tracy on Jezebel, have been trying in their own way to reclaim the word "slut" in her blogging moniker Slut Machine (although she dropped it when she got engaged).

Looking at Mad Men, their portrayal of the way women's sexuality was viewed in the early 1960s is illustrative of some of the remaining stereotypes today. I can't wait to see how they deal with the publication of the Feminine Mystique this season (and I hope they do!).

The Sarah Haskins Screenplay Has a Name (And Natalie Portman)

Sarah Haskins mentioned in an interview I did with her earlier this year that she had sold a screenplay that she co-authored, the details were vague. Now it sounds like the film will be called Booksmart and they've signed Natalie Portman onto the project. I've always valued Haskins' feminist comedy on Current, so I was a little surprised when I saw that this is a plot summary:
Laffer will revolve around two overachieving high school seniors who realize the only thing they haven't accomplished is having boyfriends, and each resolves to find one by prom. (emphasis mine)
Um, it doesn't sound very different from other romantic comedies: girl needs boy to feel "complete." I hope that Haskins' touch will add a new perspective to this old trope (and it's possible that the industry just can't deal with describing anything outside the old stereotypes of romantic comedy). After all, we could go a long way in expanding the genre.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Misogyny

I'm about to take off for Netroots Nation, but you should definitely read Jamelle's post about why George Sodini's murderous rage against women in an exercise class is anything but about how much sex Sodini was having. He said it better than I could have.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chick Lit: Revised for the Recession, But How About for Life?

This piece on Double X, written by self-proclaimed chick lit novelist Sarah Bilston, asks some critical questions about the genre. What does this mean in a era where women are getting laid off? They can't be freewheeling-independent-yet-looking-for-the-perfect-man women in an era where they have to worry about their finances?

Bilston didn't ask the really essential questions about the genre of chick lit (for obvious reasons). It's sometimes not particularly encouraging when you look at the plots of these books. Perusing an Amazon "chick lit best sellers" list reveals the plots are all roughly the same. Almost every book that falls into the chick lit category ends with the heroine falling in love with (and usually getting married to) the man of her dreams.

The Publisher's Weekly summary of LoveHampton:
In Rifkin's dazzling debut, Manhattanite media pro Tori Miller shares a posh Hamptons summerhouse with five upwardly mobile 30-somethings. Wanting out of the depressing slide her life takes after being dumped by her first love and losing her dream job, Tori starts MillerWorks, her own TV production company. Still, Tori's depressed, bringing about an intervention staged by her loyal employees, Jerry and Jimmy, her best friend Alice and the Transformation Trio—three make-over experts who use Tori as the pilot subject for their new reality TV show. Tori flirts with a glamming lifestyle, and her fling with George, a rich playboy with a publicist, while she's also secretly canoodling with a housemate, banker Andrew Kane, is a recipe for disaster. Tori must think fast on her borrowed Manolos, especially when Cassie Dearborn, her new friend and housemate, needs help with her own disastrous Hampton hijinxs.
From the description of Confessions of a Beauty Addict:

Bella Hunter may be down but she's not out yet—and she's ready to take on the world of beauty...one bad makeover at a time.

Pity the poor twenty-eight-year-old beauty expert and columnist for ultra-chic Enchant√© magazine, knocked right out of her Jimmy Choos—and out of a job—when her off-the-cuff comment to a reporter is blown way out of proportion. Once the authority on style, Bella's reduced to taking a position at Womanly World, a publishing dinosaur of no interest whatsoever to any woman under fifty. Suddenly she's got to take orders from a dreary and dowdy beauty director—and is soon at war with her male publisher, who might actually be appealing if he wasn't so totally frosty.

Bella's supermodel boyfriend, a hometown wedding, and a Paris junket are fine distractions, to be sure. But how can she face her friends and ex-coworkers now that she's stuck in an office where khaki—not Cavalli—is the way of life? And if beauty's not what it's all about...then what is?

From the description of The Naked Truth:
Falling in love is never easy, but there's nothing like it to keep a woman on her toes. There are no rules to romance-and usually the only way to get a little is to take the plunge. In these fabulous original stories, four acclaimed authors deliver the whole truth and nothing but the truth about four bold women who risk it all to win at the unpredictable game of love.
I could go on, but you get the gist. The women in these plots are social climbers and Prince Charming chasers. At least in Jacqueline Suzanne's Valley of the Dolls there was a dystopia to these women's marriages. Each of these novels are, in some thinly veiled way, the same narrative of a woman looking for fulfillment and finding love. They all seem obsessed with designer shoes, bags, and clotes. Not to hate on love and materialism, but couldn't they come up with something more interesting?

Coverage for Pregnancy: Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

Sarah Wildman experienced the problem that the National Women's Law Center has been talking about for months. While many women's rights groups (and conservative congressmen/women) are getting up in arms about abortion coverage in the new reforms proposed by Congress, the real issue at stake is the way insurance companies deal with pregnancy for those on the individual insurance market. As Sarah points out, having a baby in this country is expensive:

One CareFirst rep we actually managed to reach explained we had maxed out because the benefit was “capped” at $3,000 per pregnancy. That means $3,000 for all pre-natal visits, tests and sonograms, labor and delivery, hospital stay and hospital care. In what mythical U.S. hospital is nine months of medical care paid for with $3,000? The study by the National Women’s Law Center found that (in 2006) a normal vaginal birth cost, on average, $7,488 in hospital charges alone. Using examples of riders similar to mine, NWLC found that women with uncomplicated vaginal births would pay between $6,780 and $9,682 out of pocket. C-sections came in around $13,000 nationally, and for them, the out of pocket costs ranged from $10,000 and up. I presented those numbers to CareFirst, and they freely admitted they knew their policy in no way came close to covering a pregnancy. “It’ s a crappy benefit,” one rep admitted to me.

And this is if women can get coverage for her pregnancy with an "opportunity to buy additional coverage—known as a “rider”—to tack a maternity benefit onto your plan. It’s almost always only available in anticipation; if you try to buy the rider once you’re already pregnant, the fetus becomes a 'pre-existing condition.'"

What Sarah's story shows is that we often think of different kinds of care not getting covered by insurance because it's experimental or unique. Sarah's lead shows this:

Our six-month-old daughter cost over $22,000.

You’d think, with a number like that, we must have used fertility treatments—but she was conceived naturally. You’d think we went through an adoption agency—but she is a biological child. So surely, we were uninsured.

Her experience shows precisely how screwed up our system is now. It's not risky proceedures or unique circumstances that aren't covered by insurance. Instead, insurance companies skimp on basic medical care that is commonplace.

More Women in Skepticism?

Rebecca Watson relates a debate over sexism that took place at an annual skepticism conference, The Amazing Meeting. (I wasn't there, but I've actually been a big fan of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast of which Rebecca is a part. Rebecca is a writer by trade and her colleagues are academic scientists.) Skeptics view their mission as bringing science and scientific reasoning to media and a broader community. They are fierce defenders of evolution, opponents of homeopothy, and work against the anti-vaccination crowd. But I've noticed that Rebecca is the only woman on the show, and that they rarely interview any women on the show at all.

Rebecca's point was that although women were about 40 percent of attendees, all but one presenter was a white man. Her post was overall very diplomatic, but I wonder how long the skeptical movement will be able to skirt the issues of gender and race balance. After all, science itself, especially the hard sciences, is a field where very few women reach gender parity. Women make up the minority of grant recipients (PDF) at the National Institute of Health, and few schools even approach gender parity in its faculty ranks in hard sciences. The fact that science itself is realtively undiverse is a problem. With only a certain kind of perspective making up the majoirty of the people, there are fewer challenges -- even skepticism -- applied to what is often thought of as assumptions.

But what I found really disturbing was the reaction Rebecca got just by opening up the discussion of sexism at TAM this year:
I mean is it surprising that attractive girls might be steered toward a path that is less than academic as they go through middle and high school? I rarely see really attractive women that are also highly intelligent or geeky and i dont think its a result of some kind of discrimination. (emphasis Rebecca's)
It seems that science and skepticism itself is suffering from a lot of stereotyping, part of it directed at women.

The question of how to gain gender parity in sciences is a complicated one. Some say it is due to a lack of mentoring. Others say it goes all the way back to how boys and girls are treated in science in elementary school or that women are taught that their value is based in their attractiveness, and science isn't viewed by many as a field that attracts attractive people. Such complicated questions like the ones raised by Rebecca at TAM this year are ones that should be addressed, but they should be opened up to the broader picture. Women don't just make up the extreme minority of presenters at TAM, but they also make up a minortiy of high-profile scientists. Perhaps we need to start examining the reasons for what that is to answer the question about TAM.

Abortion Politics Aren't Just for Women

This piece in Esquire about Warren Hern is an unsettling reminder that there is only one surgeon skilled enough in America left after Dr. George Tiller's death that can perform late-term abortions. The story itself is chilling. It talks of Hern's compulsion to keep a rifle next to his bed, his distaste of the word "abortionist" (which has become a dirty word thanks to the anti-choice movement, he says), and that this man is 70 but that he doesn't have a shot at retirement. It is an interesting piece about an important aspect of the debate over reproductive rights -- and it was written by a man and published in a magazine that says its target demographic is men.

I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg when she says that a "woman's" magazine (i.e. the unserious glossies like Glamour, Elle, Vogue, or Marie Claire) wouldn't bother to devote enough space or depth to such a story. I would also venture to guess that it's about the controversy that such a piece brings as well. Women's magazine advertisers don't like controversial issues. They like to walk the middle of the political spectrum. As long as "women" who read the magazines aren't asked to choose politics then they aren't either. They can be equal opportunity capitalists to conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike.

But I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing that such a piece appears in a men's magazine. After all, I've said before, the reproductive rights movement needs to recognize that it can't just spend time talking to women. It needs to engage with men if we ever expect to see women's rights addressed seriously in a political arena. There are plenty of straight men that might read that piece in Esquire and actually take some time to think about the issue of abortion. They might come out with different conclusions than women who defend choice might desire, but at least they're thinking about it. So often it seems that women's issues are left to women. It is for them to sort out finding a doctor who will perform the procedure or fight for the issue in health care reform. By getting men on the side of the reproductive rights community, it might make pro-choice battles a little easier.
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