Thursday, May 26, 2011

who rules redux, with new voices

Here is a young feminist posting on Beyonce's Run the World song. Apparently, this gal isn't so sure that girls rule. It is nice to hear a cranky YOUNG feminist.

The video itself would lead one to believe that when girls run the world, the world will be some strange mad max-esque nightmare of burned out vehicles in a desert landscape, and that "ruling" will consist of wearing sexy designer bondage outfits, double-stick tape to avoid breasts popping out, and impossible shoes. There is something creepily colonial about the footage, in addition to its pseudo-empowering postfeminist message. I am not sure what is worse -- the fantasy that girls will run the world only after some apocalytic nightmare, that ruling will consist only of asserting rule, the costumes, or the way Beyonce "disarms" the enemy (whose reasons for attacking are unclear) by (I think) opening his shirt or touching his chest? When the men all pop their shields up at the videos' end, is that supposed ot be as foolishly phallic as I think?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

child x

This is an amazing story. I get what they are doing, sort of. I mean, I understand that they don't want to box their kid into stereotypical roles, or have assumptions imposed on the kid. But, once again, I feel like sex and gender are getting tangled. Let's say the kids has a vagina and no penis. (The article says there is no biological ambiguity.) So, in conventional terms, we'd call that kid a girl. The parents are worried that the girl would face undue expectations of female gendering -- that grandma would buy a doll, or that people would talk about how many hearts she'd break later in life, or that nobody would ask her dad if he planned to toss a football with her. But isn't this something we all manage by saying "she can do what she likes, and we'll see what her tastes and interests are, not decide based on her sex."

The parents already have two biological boys who like to wear their hair long and wear pink. And the parents are "unschooling" (an extra loose version of homeschooling) them. Which, I guess removes them from some social strictures as well as some forms of socialization. But, still, the boys face difficulties, because people don't know how to "read" them. So, the boys ask their parents to please let people know they are boys. The boys don't think ambiguity makes their life any easier. And, despite wearing long hair and pink, they do not perceive themselves as girls. They believe they can be pink wearing, long-haired boys. And so do I. But somehow the parents feel that isn't enough, that removing the "stigma" of sex would help them more -- despite the fact that the kids say they feel bad about not being able to be in a conventional school and that they ant to tell people they are boys.

Now, the new kid, Storm, will not be assigned a sex. Therefore, the parents reason, nobody will impose definitions. But, in not assigning a sex, aren't the parents assigning their own definitions. If Storm is a biological female, and it turns out that she likes things that have historically been gendered masculine, then does that mean she is not a girl? Only by assuming that our gender and sex have to match do we decide that sex is something to be re-named.

Once again, I have to ask whether the parents' sense of gender ambiguity is too narrow. As with the kid on Oprah I discussed in an earlier post, I feel that the parents here are imposing stricter gender definitions by denying sex than if they let their boys be gender bending boys and let Storm, whoever and whatever she is, be whoever and whatever she is, without worrying about whether who she is fits or does not fit conventional gender stereotypes. Wouldn't the parents serve him/her best not by turning his/her sex into a guessing game but by allowing her to be herself, wearing pink or blue or green and playing with dolls and balls and dinosaurs and tupperware, or whatever s/he likes. Break the stereotypes by all means. But don't impose stereotypes of your own by removing labels like "girl" and "boy" as if that fixes everything.

Monday, May 23, 2011

in loco parentis

I teach film and gender studies at a University. Usually, I think about my relationship with my students and not about their relationships with their family. But every year, on graduation weekend, I come into contact with student's families and I realize that my relationship with the student has become part of that student's relationship with his/her family. Usually, this means that the parents have heard of me, or heard about a class I taught. This year, for example, I talked to a lot of parents about my Sinatra class. I also had a lot of general conversations with parents about what the student's major meant to them. In the case of gender studies, there were some parents who spoke very approvingly of their child's choice to major in gender studies. They saw that it had been very beneficial to their child. Some were not as convinced, perhaps, or were glad that the student had a "practical" major as well. The most amazing conversation I had, though, was with a dad whose daughter majored in film and took many film/gender classes from me, as well as one on feminist and gender theory without a film component. The father took me aside and told me that he and his wife had been worried by the fact that their daughter was somewhat narrow minded and conservative about gender. Living in LA, the dad said, they felt she should be more open. So they were delighted when she took my courses. He said it really made her think and change her views -- on abortion (which I don't think I ever explicitly addressed, but would have come up in a few films), gender roles, feminism, homosexuality, transgender, and more. He said that I was not only his daughters' favorite professor but the family's. It was an amazing conversation. I was very surprised and pleased -- nobody has ever ever thanked me for making their daughter less conservative! But it was also amazing to remember the impact that we can have. When sometimes it seems all students care about is grades and the market payoff for college, along comes someone who seeks just to expand her mind. And parents who appreciate that and seek it with her and for her. It made me appreciate my role as mentor in a whole new way. And it gave me a model for how to think about my own kids and what they can find at school.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Today, I dodged a special Volunteer Appreciation breakfast at my kids' school. I was included because I volunteered last week to cover the classroom during teacher appreciation when the teachers are taken to lunch outside the school. (One of the kids in the class remarked that he thought it was odd that the teachers left the school in order to feel appreciated. Ha ha.) I felt that they could best appreciate the time I had taken to volunteer by not taking up more of my time thanking me. I am appreciating myself today by cleaning my office, getting rid of the traces of this semester's classes, and organizing the materials I need for this summer's writing and class prep.

The volunteer system at school never feels very voluntary to me. Nobody has ever said that I have to volunteer, but there is an ethos that assumes that you will volunteer for field trips, classroom parties, special events, etc. All of this on top of attending the frequent assemblies, concerts, class presentations, parties, and other in-school events that parents are expected to attend. So I generally allocate one to two things per child -- meaning I try and do one field trip for each kid if possible and one in-class volunteer session. So, this year, I did Teacher Appreciation in the 4th grade (which had me in the classroom for about two hours, just making sure the kids didn't run amok) and Ellis Island Day for the 2nd grade (in which the kids pretend to be entering Ellis Island and we check their medical status, papers, money. I like to make them change their names.) I brought home made donuts to my son's "half birthday." I fell down on the field trips, but am going to the zoo in two weeks time, getting one in just before school closes for the year. Along the way, I attended holiday concerts, an assembly in which they celebrated reading (I missed one in which they presented on infectious diseases because I was away at a conference and felt guilty for weeks), plus a Native American museum (kids make dioramas and you walk through the classroom talking to them about their work) and an Egyptian museum (for this, they also wore costumes). All within working hours. (The band concerts are at night).

I understand the impulse -- parents should be involved in their child's education, it takes a village, etc. But there seems to be little understanding from within the school or even among the parents that people might not be able to frequently attend events between 8 and 3PM on weekdays when people work. When I was a kid, the school day was when my parents didn't have to worry about me or take care of me. But now, we are supposed to be on call all the time. Some dads do volunteer and dads often attend the concerts, assemblies and presentations. But, of course, most of the volunteering falls on moms. Many of the moms at our school are stay at home moms. Actually, a surprisingly large number. Most of whom had jobs, and big serious jobs, at some point in time. The volunteer system feeds on them, because they are seen as "easily" able to show up for any and all school events. It also, I suspect, helps some of them feel that their stay at home status is a necessity, because paid work would make it hard to volunteer. The school becomes another unpaid job for them. The temptation for me and other moms and dads who work for pay is to rely on these stay at home moms (and few stay at home dads) to take up the slack. The temptation for the school and for our kids is to see these parents as more committed. Along the way, we erase the idea that postfeminism taught us that being a stay at home is as valid and as hard as working outside the home. We extend the stay at home parent's nurturing role beyond their family and ask them to be substitute parents for the rest of us.

I'd rather that the school would make clear its expectations. Rather than assume that everybody can just skip out of work whenever they feel like it (and amazingly there are doctor and lawyer parents and other people who have much less flexible jobs than mine who manage this stuff), just say up front that the price of school (on top of its exorbitant price tag) is one volunteer activity per year per parent. This would equalize the gender imbalance, create more equality between working and stay at home parents, and make clear that it is an obligation not a choice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


My career is going very well. Recently, I was elected to the Executive Board of the national academic organization for cinema scholars, I am running the Gender Studies program on campus, my book, The Apartment Plot, came out a few months ago, I've organized some great conferences, I've had some good speaking invitations, and I just got promoted. It is all good, but I still feel ambivalent about it. It isn't that I feel success is undeserved. I don't have that kind of self-loathing. Instead, I both want success and fear it. Or, rather, I want success but fear what it entails. Mainly extra work. Every step up, every bit of recognition, carries with it the threat of more meetings, more committees, more travel, more time away from the family. Yes, I can tell my kids that it is good that their mom works and has her own identity, and they believe it, but when that means I miss a recital or some other school event or even when it means I miss a few breakfasts or dinners with them, it makes me feel guilty. And I know that every thing I do affects my husband and takes away from his work time. as he takes up the slack for me (in addition to doing his own usual share) with the kids. At the same time, when I tell a work-related person that I will only stay at the conference for a shortened time or will skip a dinner, because I want to see my family or need to got a recital, I feel like a feeb, a failure. This is the familiar bind of the working mom. But what to do? Sometimes I fantasize about having an Alice, like in The Brady Bunch. But, aside from the expense, I don't want someone else being my substitute at home or even being in my home that much. I treasure the private space of our home and our family. Watching Big Love, I sometimes think that what I need is a sister-wife, someone who shares my family and has the same stakes as I do, who can spell me and my husband when necessary. But I wouldn't like the husband sharing, or the assumption that my sister wife should be a stay-at-home mom herself (or the creepy polygamist dresses). I guess one way to look at it is that I have managed so far, and seem to be getting rewarded and recognized for good work, despite my constant feeling that I'm not doing enough or will be found out. Maybe the more we all assert our right to not be everywhere at every minute -- to miss a recital, leave a conference early, dodge a meeting -- we can help make new rules and new expectations.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

When Harry met Haley

In my Feminist and Gender theory class, as we discussed transgender issues, I brought in numerous representations of transgender and/or intersex, including such touchstones as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, TransAmerica, Orlando, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. As we discussed transgender, we started thinking that transgender was the most radical space for rethinking the relationship between bodies and gender, by making the body seem mutable and by underscoring a fissure between body and gender and between biology and gender. However, at the same time, we kept feeling that certain ways of talking about or imagining transgender led back to essentialism. The idea that one is "really" a woman inside or "a man trapped in a woman's body" seems to have some idea of what it means to be "really" a woman or a man, some sense of a gendered soul that seems to assume authenticity (as opposed to gender performance) and that assumes that nature makes mistakes (in giving the "wrong" body) rather than assume that gender is culture, not nature.

All of this became much more problematic when we looked at an Oprah episode (where else?) about raising a transgender child. What is curious in this segment (linked below) is that the 7 year old now-girl Haley, who was formerly a boy, Harry, never said to her parents "I want to be a girl." The parents, who describe themselves as progressive parents trying to raise gender neutral children, say instead that it was just "obvious." I am not sure what the exact process was -- whether they legally changed the child's name or whether her teachers know her story -- but there seems to be some secrecy attached to this, as Lisa Ling describes the family as "brave" for telling their story, suggesting that Haley's identity is now taken to be that of a girl in her community and that this show would be an outing of sorts. In any case, what bothers me is that these supposedly progressive parents could not imagine their boy, Harry, as a boy who could like painting his nails, wearing his hair long or playing with dolls and cuddlies. This, despite the fact that numerous parents tell stories of their sons doing exactly that -- as behaviors that they may or may not "grow out of." Instead, when he took on the gender neutral characteristics that they say they encouraged, they read him as a girl. In other words, they forced gender stereotypes onto him and decided that if he did such "feminine" things he must be a girl. I am not suggesting that there are not children who might feel a conflict between their inside feelings and outside body or that transgender is in actuality much more complicated and less rigid than many popular representations make it seem. But I am questioning the way in which transgender, in certain conceptions of it, allows us to re-map gender stereotypes and re-assert gender binaries, rather than explode those assumptions. So, my question is, why can't Harry be a cross-dressing nail painting boy? Why does wearing a dress and painting nails automatically make him a girl?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Who Rules

Recently, my son asked me why, since there are so many myriad T-Shirts and other signs that say "Girls Rule" and "Girls Rock," there were not shirts that said "Boys Rule?" (It was a little bit like when my daughter, a knee jerk feminist in her own way, expressed anger that Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton got the presidential nomination -- "But we have never had a woman in the White House!" We had to explain that not only women have been oppressed and that it was still pretty darn good to get an African American man there.) I explained to my son that there had always been an assumption that "boys rule" and that that had made it important to say that girls were cool and girls could rule. But, still. What is a little boy to think? Girl power has worked so well as a merchandising tool for the younger set that girls truly do rule in most media. iCarly, Hannah Montana and other cool tween girls dominate cable TV. The boys in these shows are generally full-blown idiots, virtually unable to function in the world (both Carly and Hannah's brothers), or they are crafty liars who succeed only through deception (Zack or Cody in the Disney series). The girls, however, are smart and strong and funny. In even the smartest children's lit, there has been a sea change in how boys and girls are represented. In the Magic Tree House books, two kids time travel to help Merlin and his sister Morgan le Fay find treasures for the library in King Arthur's court. It is nerdy and historical stuff and we love it. The girl, Annie, is intuitive, good with animals, and fearless -- she plunges into every adventure with the absolute certainty that she will come out okay. Her brother, by contrast, is more bookish, and a bit afraid. He can't move forward without doing research and even then is usually pushed by his younger sister. Neither fits an exact boy-girl stereotype. But there is a way in which we can no longer imagine the boy as fearless, or an adventurer. In order to allow girl power, he has to give up some of his power. So, what do tell our sons? "Move aside, it's your sister's turn?" Or "Nobody rules, at least not by virtue of their sex." But, can we say that really?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This blog is about being a mom, and a feminist, in a post-feminist world. It is about the difficulties of managing work and family and the ways in which the promises of feminism have yet to manifest, as well as the ways in which they have. It is also about encounters with post or anti-feminist worlds in my role as mom. And it is about trying to raise kids, a 7 year old boy and 9 year old girl, as they encounter gendered assumptions about the world. Though I am an academic, this blog is not about my academic work, except insofar as I teach gender studies and frequently bump up against the assumptions of a post-feminist world in class and in discussion with students, both male and female, as well as among colleagues.

What do I mean by feminist and post-feminist? By feminist, I mean that I believe in equality for men and women, and also between heterosexual and homosexual worlds and for all LBGTQ people. Feminist issues include equal pay, child care, health care, education, and other material issues. But it also encompasses discourse and culture, the way we speak of women and men, and gay and straight, and the way we are all represented in the culture. It includes ideologies of sex and gender, and the taken for granted assumptions that guide our lives. By post-feminist, I mean many things. In part, the post conveys a sense that some people believe feminism is over, that the battles have been won. Post also suggests a postmodern feminism, more youthful and playful perhaps, but also potentially more superficial. It includes promising ideas like girl power, but can slip into ideas about self-exploitation being empowering (girls gone wild, e.g.).

In my own life, I have changed over time from being a post-feminist to a feminist. I went to college in 1982. At that time, I thought most of the battles had been won. I had no reason to believe otherwise. I could assume that I could go to any college I wanted (depending upon my scores, not my sex), that I would have a career, that my career would not be limited by my sex, that I could choose to have a child or not, that I could choose to marry or not, that I could get my own place to live, my own bank account, a car, and whatever else I needed to live. I knew that I did not need a man for financial security. So, I felt grateful for the feminists who came before me and figured I was all set. And that was sort of true, until . . . once I became a wife, and people talked to me differently -- gave me more respect in some cases, assumed my husband was boss, in many others, thought they had me pegged. Then, the decision to have children, a decision my husband and I shared. But dealing with pregnancy and coming up against the way in which "our"decision to have kids affected me -- my health, my job (as I took time off to care for the child, thus losing salary, benefits, time to do research and writing) -- made me begin to feel the pressure of difference, and the imbalance of motherhood vs. fatherhood, even with a great feminist husband. Now, increasingly, I feel the tension between motherhood and work -- my need to get to a meeting vs. my schedule of driving the kids to school, the school's assumption that I am free in the middle of the day to attend field trips, my boss's assumption that I am free in the late afternoon for a meeting (when I have to pick up my kids). I also feel the pressure of trying to raise kids without gendered assumptions, kids who will be open to non-traditional families, non-stereotypical ways of being boys and girls or whatever they want to be, knowing that their friends and teachers are not always as open or cognizant of difference as they might be (kids more than anyone police each other and let boys especially know what is expected of them). These pressures are not mine alone. My husband shares them. And that makes me feel the need for feminism more, to create ways for all of us to manage the realities of family and work better.