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Friday, September 12, 2008

More Sexism

Maybe it’s all the talk of sexism in the news (Newsweek’s Anna Quinlen points out that the Republicans have used the word more in the past week than in the past fifty years.), but sexism seems more visible this week. Or may it’s because I’m reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd’s account of how she—a Southern Baptist and member of the select “Gracious Ladies” club—got fed up with all the sexism in her church (and society and marriage) and discovered feminine spirituality.

After a torturously slow journey filled with fear and angst about leaving what is familiar, Kidd ends up with an alter filled with nature imagery and the bare-breasted Minoan Goddess who holds snakes, a renewed and more equal marriage, and a new career as a bestselling author. It’s an interesting read, though somewhat repetitive. I have to say my spiritual journey has been quite different, maybe because I was never in the “Gracious Ladies” club to begin with. No one ever taught me how to pour tea, certainly not my mother who didn’t fit the stereotype of silent, selfless womanhood that Kidd was surrounded by in the South. Instead I was educated by strong, progressive nuns and then Quakers, not to mention the Girl Scouts, who taught me how to start a fire and pitch a tent on a mountain. I did have to find new ways of thinking and talking about God when I reached adulthood and realized that the Lincoln Memorial image of the Divine wasn’t cutting it. Quakerism was an easy solution, with hundreds of years of genderless spiritual imagery. Marrying Tom introduced me to Catholic congregations that intentionally use inclusive language. So I haven’t felt the need to go to Crete to find balance in my spiritual life. In fact, I don’t feel like I’ve experienced that much sexism in my life—until I pause and start adding up the incidents. (Yale and Botswana stand out as the places where I experienced the most.) I don’t feel that I have as much anger to work through as Kidd, though every once in a while I notice something and feel a righteous indignation bubble to the surface. Like Kidd, the desire to protect my daughter can bring out the warrior in me.

For example, two days ago the kids convinced me to let them look in a new Halloween store that had sprung up right next door to the Staples we were visiting. It was the kind of place where you could buy big, rubber, bloody limbs, bloody swords, or fake blood for that matter so you make anything you want bloody. There were life-sized ogres and tombs and…well, you get the picture. My son loved the place, and so did my daughter, though I found myself uneasy as I started noticing how sexist most of the female costumes were. Little girls could choose between being a harem dancer or Hannah Montana, while virtually every costume for an adult woman was sexualized in some way and illustrated with a model in a suggestive pose. There was the usual “Pirate Wench” and a slew of women in what are normally powerful positions (like police officer and soldier), their authority undercut with hemlines way too short to trick-or-treat in October in Pennsylvania. The policewoman looked like she might do more than take you down to the station after she got those handcuffs on.

Now I’m not against having a little fun on Halloween or using it as an excuse to dress in ways that make us feel attractive at a party. But as a mother, I couldn’t help noticing how my daughter’s possibilities were constrained in this store that had scores of stereotypical costumes. White men could be doctors or monsters, while women of all races could be sexual objects and black men could be pimps. (There was also a display with a life-sized lawn ornament that looked disturbingly like a lynching, though the man’s race was hard to say for certain.)

Of course, we don’t have to buy those costumes or buy into those images. My daughter is putting together her own outfit, I’m happy to say. But still those costumes are not random or accidental. They tap into stereotypes that are deep, persistent and more common than most of us want to think about in our busy, everyday lives.

10 Comments:

Anonymous cath said...

As an aside (but I think still related) I've noticed dolls. There are a couple of girls in my extended family who have recently become old enough to stop playing with dolls and donated their Barbies to charity. What I noticed is that the days of Barbie-as-professional (how happy we were to find Veterinarian Barbie) are over.

Barbie is now a princess. And all the Barbie dvds are about how Barbie the princess (be she mermaid or human) learns the lessons of life.

But what is the lesson of having a doll with a large marketing campaign promoting her within the princess context.

Sorry, girls, but being a princess is not IMO a realistic expectation in our world and not something I want to promote.

I actually liked the old Barbie and hope someday she is resurrected to resume her portrayal of women doing things that women can do in this world.

Of course, my favorite books as a child were fairy tale books, so perhaps I was interacting with princesses in my own way (without dolls).

Still....I miss the professional Barbie--the one which came after Barbie as model/Malibu girl and came before Barbie as princess.

cath

p.s. I must thank you for mentioning the documentary "Unnatural Causes" which I found at the library after I read about it here. It was very good, and I've suggested it to several people.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

Mama bear over here is still very inflamed about sexism - I see way too much of it everywhere. I'm not a fan of any Barbie, but how about those little whore dolls they sell now - the Bratz? Joy. And I just saw photos of some panties being marketed to juniors that say "who needs credit cards" on their little vulva coverings. There's a message for our daughters...grrrr...

2:28 PM  
Anonymous A Mama's Rant said...

My 5-year-old daughter has decided to be one of the girl Power Rangers (Yellow). I'm not too crazy about the Power Rangers in general, but at least the girls are as tough as the boys are on the show. And since both my children loved the show, I used their interest to get them into martial arts. So it's been a positive influence. Who would have thought?

10:48 AM  
Blogger juliloquy said...

My (internet) friend ordered a "sexy mermaid" costume a couple of sizes too large so she could be a gorilla dressed as a mermaid. Excellent

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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5:47 AM  
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5:48 AM  
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5:00 AM  
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5:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would appreciate if this time you wouldn't deleate my comment...last time i checked feminists believed in the first ammendement as well :)

5:02 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Dear Anonymous,

I do believe in the First Amendment and support your right to start your own blog where you can use profanity and insult me without cause all you like, if that's how you choose to use your time. However, this blog has always tried to keep a civil tone, without profanity or hateful stereotypes, which I am sad to say your comments fostered, which is why I have deleted them once again. I will, however, post an excerpt of something you said that I think was a thoughtful contribution to the discussion.

You wrote,"We all know full well that men are just as objectified as women are nowadays. Magazines of men with 8-pack abdominal muscles, sparkling perfect teeth and unrealistically oversized crotches are splaterred in book stores and magazine stands. Male stereotypes of the rugged James Bond, aggressive GI Joe or sensitive carring Troy Bolton are shoved down our throaths by the media on a daily basis. We are expected to be supermen like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp or David Beckham while common everyday men that go to work and feed their families are portrayed as idiots in our media."

You argue that both men and women face stereotypes, but men don't get all bent out of shape about it. I would argue that you are right about these stereotypes of men, which also concern me as the mother of a son. I suspect that the reason women get more upset about the stereotypes is that they seem to support the violence and discrimination that many women still face. Your blog comments reinforced my belief that sexism is still quite prevelant. That doesn't mean that I hate men or walk around angry all the time, as you assume. In fact, I believe the tone of your comments was much more angry than the tone of my post, which leads me to wonder what has happened in your life to make you so angry over this issue? I am not encouraging you to answer here, unless you can keep a civil tone, but to reflect yourself on the source of your venom.

7:20 AM  

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