Sunday, March 25, 2007

You cannot perfect perfection

In response to a recent article (quoted at the F-Word) on how famous women are often 'prettied up' on celluloid to make them look nice for the masses, I have at least one positive counterexample. Did anyone watch The Hours? The movie makers, bless them, actually made an effort to create an accurate Virginia Woolf, even making a prosthetic nose for Nicole Kidman to transform her entirely:

That said, Ms. Woolf was already pretty damn good looking to begin with. But at least they didn't have her looking like Kidman on film.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

...last one today...

I love this quote from Laurelin as she dissects some of the insults that are hurled at her:

‘Dyke’- neither ‘lesbian’ nor ‘canal’ are insults.

On Evolution (for all you rabid Biology fans)

Quite often, I find articles stating that men are like this or women are like that because of genes, and thus they are all thus and if they aren't they're abominations of nature. They say that humans are all one way because they evolved. I think that this is a bit of a fallacy, as it ignores another crucial part of being human - our potentially long life spans.

Let's start at the basics here. The mayfly. It has a tiny lifespan, leading it to be called the 'one day fly' in various languages. (Its temporary nature is reflected by the rather beautiful name the French have given it, l'éphémère.) Once it has emerged in its adult form, it has a day to fly off, find a mate, breed, find a suitable area to lay its eggs and then do so before it dies. With such a tiny window of time within which to fit everything, it would mean the extinction of the species if it had to first learn how to perform all of its actions - especially in the absence of any parents to do the teaching. Thus, it makes sense that the little naiad is largely controlled by its genetic make-up.

Creatures such as elephants and us ape-y types are a bit different. We can live for decades. We produce fewer offspring than our small, short-lived neighbours and these offspring receive a good deal of parenting before cavorting off to be independent like all the cool kids. All this parental help we get gives us a greater survival chance in the early years, and also mean we have plenty of time to learn from observation, trial and error and straightforward lessons from our parents. We also continue to learn throughout our lives, picking up skills and tips as we go. Thus, human behaviour has a lot more to do with learning than it does in the case of a mayfly. We have different personalities, different ways of expressing ourselves, different habits. To say, then, that we will be a certain way purely because of our genes is to deny that we have any individuality and also says that parenting means nothing - we could be brought up in any way but will always be X. Even parenting doesn't predict us though, as is shown by numerous cases of children 'turning out differently' to expectations. We are influenced by social and familial pressures and our own growing minds and ideas, with our genes only providing a 'groundwork' for many of us.

Let's look at evolution in the case of monogamy. If we are to look at our closest relatives, chimps, which share a whopping 98% of their genetic material with us, you will see that they are... not monogamous. Gorillas... no. In fact, I learned by reading The Descent of Woman (Elaine Morgan's precursor to The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis) that where natural, genetic monogamy happens, it is usually in the case of creatures like gibbons and a wide range of both aquatic and terrestrial creatures which are so fiercely territorial that, if they did not go through a stage of imprinting that would allow them to bond with another member of their species with which they would mate with and allow to live with them, they and their species would face some serious problems establishing themselves. Humans are rather less territorial than that, yet we still get people saying that women are monogamous purely due to genes. If we went through the imprinting process then we could say that love at first sight was universal, we'd go through a short period of time in which we would latch on to a mate and, once the window has closed, wouldn't so much as look at another one. Cheating in relationships would be EXTREMELY rare if not unheard of.
Not. The. Case.
The evidence suggests that our genetic foundations do not mark us as monogamous, and thus the practice of monogamy is a result of choice and social influence. I'm not saying 'monogamy is bad'. I'm saying 'there's no proof that humans are monogamous by default'.

There are several examples of this, all ignoring the human capacity to learn and be influenced. So before simply saying that humans should be a certain way because of what they are, think about the other factors first.

Friday, March 16, 2007

I'd rather eat chocolate, too...

... but I won't deny that other women prefer 'exercise'.
Joan Sewell has just written a book. But not just any book, oh no. This book is about how any woman who is not like her must be delusional.

The idea that women’s sex drive can match men’s is politically correct piffle, says Sewell, who is 45. Her memoir, I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido, recounts one frustration after another in a buildup to an anticlimactic conclusion: she’s just not that into sex. Such a pronouncement may not be titillating, but it’s groundbreaking, says Sandra Tsing Loh in the March issue of the Atlantic.

Libidinous ladies parade across our television screens—in Sex and the City, for example, or Desperate Housewives—but Sewell thinks they’re faking it. Like many real women, they are conforming to an image of supposed sexual liberation as they throw down their men and play rough. Poor Sewell, then, is the deviant.

The ensuing interview basically draws out her views: she doesn't like sex, and actresses and porn stars are faking it because that's their job, therefore all women are faking it because they are incapable of doing anything other than imitate the imitators. Or something.
I'm a bit like Sewell, in the fact that I have a very low to non-existent sex drive (and I'm not even married or over 40, something she feels factors into it) and think that the current raunch culture encourages girls and women to put on the display of lust where there is in fact none. However, our views diverge there. Whist Sewell decides that women all have low libidos and fake it all the time even when not in the public eye, I feel that women have different libidos and some fake it due to social pressure; but even then, many have the confidence to say 'no' if they aren't in the mood. Certainly, there's a problem with some feeling obliged to put out when they don't want to, feeling they must be something wrong with that - this is something to be remedied. But to go as far as saying that women are almost all sexless is like saying that women are almost all gagging for it - it's not progressive, ground breaking or subversive, it's just another way to make people feel that there's something wrong with them.
She also implies (if not yells, in your ear, with a megaphone) that all men are sex fiends who are only being monogamous to keep the little lady happy. Wow, what a way to box the men in AND make their partners feel guilty. This woman is clearly a beacon of truth and light to us all.

Update: I think this quote sums up the interview.

It’s all an act, then, and the truth is that men are fundamentally lustful and women are not?

Men are far more interested in sex, and if they can get as much sex as they want, they’re going to try. They do tailor their sex drive, at least the gentlemen do, to women. Sometimes they have to, just to get them into bed, and sometimes they genuinely want to. But men had harems in the past. Women’s lib has made monogamy more of a standard, but if it were left up to men, would that be a standard? You know, I don’t think so. I think they like having a main squeeze, a woman they can be emotional with, but they also like the idea of having sex on the side. Are women completely monogamous? No. But it tends to go the other way far more.

You talk about evolutionary influences on libido, and I wonder how real you think they are, how acutely you think we feel them.

Well, across so many cultures, men are more promiscuous, men want more variety, men want more women. And for women, security overrides the sexual urge. That happens because, well, the woman’s sexual urge is weaker. Maybe it is because of biology.

This argument ignores socialisation, for a start. Let's take Islamic culture, for example, where men can take up to 4 wives. Is this because they are inherently more lustful? Well, the reason given in the Koran is that men have a duty to protect women, so taking in more than one wife was a way of looking after those such as war-widows or older women who were more dependant and needed shelter and support. It isn't encouraged in the scriptures to take more than one wife simply because you want them, and if you are incapable of treating them all equally then you should remain monogamous. (How closely this is followed in some areas is a different story.) Before Islam, in some Eastern countries it was fine for women to have several husbands as well, though this was outlawed by the new religion. I'm going to look this up and get back to you (I can't find mah book!) but there is also a community out there (in the great beyond!) which actively encourages women to take multiple partners. Here in the West, however, women's sexual desires have up until comparatively recently been ignored or even denied - sexual desire of any description was seen as a disease in women in the 19th century and a variety of treatments, including clitoridectomy, were used to 'cure' them of their lustful ways. Now, having no desire may be seen as a bit odd at the very least, and asexuality is recognised to be the least common sexuality out there. While Sewell isn't going as far as to say 'women have no desires at all', she is putting 'low libido' as the norm for the vast majority, largely based upon her own experiences and assumptions from data which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Feminism 101

If you have a general question about feminism and its large issues, from 'is it victim politics?' or 'why not tell them to defend themselves against rape?' then head on down to the Feminism 101 blog and have a snoot around.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Friday, March 02, 2007

What kind of a feminist ARE you?!

Is a question I occasionally get. I shall try and answer that before I answer the more unusual question later.

Okay, let's see. Well, first up, I'm by no means fixed in all my views yet. At 17 years old, I've not been properly 'into' the movement for very long at all, but women's issues have always grabbed and held my attention.


In terms of literature, my personal feminist collection is sparse, consisting of Female Chauvinist Pigs, A Brief History of Misogyny (a current favourite), The Beauty Myth, Price of Honour (next in line for reading) and The Female Eunuch. Interestingly, it is that last one, the one so highly praised by seemingly every feminist I come across, that I found the least engaging. I never finished it, so I cannot comment on it completely, but as your average girl on the street, a mostly male group of friends and no background in the feminist 60s-80s period in which the book was published, I found it difficult to fully relate to. Perhaps someday I'll read it completely with a different eye. Meanwhile, it was Ariel Levy's flawed and much-criticised paperback that got me hooked. Her arguments are far from perfect, and she does sometimes come across as having little respect for people who do actually enjoy and embrace 'raunch culture' as a true reflection of their sexuality, yet as someone who does find such a society both intimidating and dull (if it could be possible) as well as alienating, I was heartened to find someone who - at least to a certain extent - saw it as I did. Despite everything people have said against the book, for me, it was as good a starting point as The F-Word was in finding out what feminists are saying here and now.
However, I don't think that 'blame the slags' is a good philosophy.

Discrimination and the 'isms'

I have always been an avid reader, and always enjoyed a good story. When in primary school and nursery I could usually be found in the book section, and the picture books were my earliest source of information about the world apart from my actual day-to-day experiences - and in the books that I saw, the doctors were always male and the nurses were always female. Our family doctor, similarly, was and still is a man, and on our occasional visits to the hospital we would be surrounded by female nurses - so I assumed that the books must be right. So when my dad asked me once what I wanted to be when I grow up, one of the first things I said was 'a nurse'.
'Why? Don't you want to be a doctor?'
'Only men can be doctors.' I replied matter-of-factly. Regardless of the intention of the books, this was what I had learned. This was sexism, accidental or not. I also learned that families always consist of Mum, Dad, and minimum of two children and the family pet(s) - I didn't know what divorce was until I met my best friend, I didn't know that women can love women and men can love men until a family friend passed around some wedding photos. I assumed that EVERYONE gets married at some point. Girls must try and look pretty all the time, while boys go out and rip the knees of their trousers climbing trees. I learned that white people marry only white people, Asians marry only Asians and so on. Hopefully, the books have become more representative since then.
Now that I'm older I am told that women are damaging the family by going out to work, but men aren't (I OBJECT!) - reinforcing the picturesque nuclear families in those picture books. Every now and then, a study tells me that I find maths challenging purely because I'm female, and the roughly 5:1 ratio of boys to girls in my maths class is discouraging. Immigrants are destroying our way of life. Black single mothers should be blamed entirely for their family's breakdown. Et. Cetera.
I wish I'd been shown more accurate depictions when I was younger. Maybe not all stories of family breakdowns and cancer, but even just a few mentions - a few female doctors or male nurses, a child with parents who are co-habiting - something. I wish people would stop reading the fucking Sun. I wish that people would stop automatically trying to pin the blame upon a single group whenever something goes wrong. I hope that things will improve. I look forward to it.

I was going to go on longer with this, but I've found a way to summarise it all. Feminist Critics made a list of the things that they believe feminism has got right and which they agree with - it basically says everything about how I see things. When I analyse something, these are the basic premises that I start from:

1. There is a gender system

Males and females are socialized into masculinities and femininities. Masculine and feminine behaviour is not simply determined by biology.

2. The gender system is damaging

Masculinities and femininities can be damaging and dehumanizing to both males and females.

3. Women are oppressed

Women have suffered various types of systematic mistreatment throughout history, and continue to do so in the present. This mistreatment is unjust. If it can be called “oppression,” then women suffer gender oppression.

4. Sexism exists

Sexism—hateful, contemptuous, bigoted, or discriminatory attitudes based on sex—is real. Sexism can be institutionalized socially and politically. The feminist identification and critique of misogyny has mitigated misogyny, though institutionalized misogyny still exists.

5. Males have unjust advantages

Males have some systematic advantages over females that they do not have a right to.

6. Marginalization of the experience of women

Prior to feminism, the experience of women was marginalized in academic and scientific disciplines, and in public discourse.

7. Sexuality involves power dynamics

Under the gender system at least, sexuality is intertwined with power dynamics. E.g. male-dominant, female-submissive, and male-active, female-passive. These power dynamics are not limited to heterosexuality. The link between power dynamics and sexuality can be damaging to people.

8. There is something wrong with pornography

Pornography can be dehumanizing toward both its users and towards its participants. Even if pornography can be defended on legal grounds, these liberal arguments doesn’t protect it from moral critique.

9. There is intersectionality of oppression

Gender oppression and oppression based on race, sexual orientation, or class, can combine multiplicatively into oppression that is more than the sum of its parts.

10. Beauty standards can be damaging

Beauty standards and objectification can be damaging to female self-esteem. It would be both practical and moral to change images of beautiful women in the media in certain ways.

Overall, I think feminism is a positive force, and one I gladly associate myself with. Yes, there have been times when we've 'got it wrong' as it were. All movements have their highs and lows and sub-groups of differing opinions which occasionally clash. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. I hope I can 'grow into' the movement over time, I want to learn more, and I want to see it succeed it improving conditions for women (and, hopefully, everyone) worldwide. I want to be a part of that.