Femininity, it's not just for the wimmins

Katie has an interesting proposition over at her blog:

What if every Friday, one among all the “But I LIKE lipstick!” feminists in the blogosphere rounded up all the arguments she’s had to come up with to defend WHY she likes lipstick? What if she channeled it into a dead-serious ad for why men would like it too, if they’d give it a try.

Other feminists would then cross-post and quote her post.

Seriously, what do you think about making this a shared blogosphere project?

Lipstick one week, humanities majors the next, shopping the next (tell Walmart-mom-raised men the really awesome learning experiences they missed out on while they were at the lake!), etc.

We probably won’t sell any male readers, but if we collaboratively work at this every week for a year or two, we’ll get good at it.

Then we’ll have 52-104 well-developed and sensible arguments that male and female readers can take to real-life discussions in their locker rooms and homes.

She later clarifies the goal of this project:

The aim is genuinely encouraging men to embrace traditionally feminine qualities and so challenge the accepted ideas of gender, the ultimate aim being to get rid of gender steretypes altogether. (i.e. anyone can wear skirts, anyone can be super strong, anyone can wear lipstick no matter what their sex.)

In Lieu of Pop-Culture Part Deux

I have the next installment of my series mostly written, but it’s already 6 here and I haven’t eaten nor done my homework yet. So, I’m going to point you in the direction of an interesting post instead.

OS.CB regular Dora has made a post, Repeat after me: “We are all individuals …”, on her livejournal inspired by my post on Superheroine’s Demise. In it, she talks about the difference between criticizing individuals and being aware of the institutions of oppression that influence our choices. I’m with her 100%.

An excerpt:

Superheroine’s Demise, and the people who hold that fetish, are individuals. I won’t tell an individual to change who he is, or the individual choices he makes. I will not even wholly condemn him, because he is not completely, or exclusively, guilty. All of us are at least partially culpable in maintaining sexism. Yes, this case is worse than others, but it isn’t the sole villain among innocents.

I will, however, continue to (vocally) expose the sexism beneath practices such as these, so that people will learn about it. And I will continue to believe that people have a responsibility to educate themselves when they are presented with the opportunity. Unquestionable acceptance of misogyny is inexcusable – especially when you’re given the chance to enlighten yourself.

If that’s your kink, then that’s your kink. Just be honest about what that means.

No more token women!

Whether we recognize it or not, we all know about The Girl. Sometimes the Love Interest, or the Sidekick, or the Little Sister, or what have you, she has existed in literature and popular culture from time immemorial. Those of you who are of my generation may be thinking of Smurfette, who was literally defined in both name and action as being the (only) female smurf while all the male smurfs were defined by their actions. Later on, some female smurf kids were added, but kids tend to fit more into a “gender neutral” category than adults in our society.

Enter And Then There’s the Girl: “Women Characters” vs. “Characters that are Women”, a Blog Against Sexism post from a couple days ago that I missed highlighting. The author, kalinara, uses Cheetara (do you notice a trend in taking a word and “feminizing” it for the token women?) to represent the phenomenon of The Girl.

After her introduciton, she illustrates exactly what it means to be The Girl (or, in this case, Woman) instead of simply a woman:

You have one old ghost guy who’s the elderly mentor/grandfather figure in Jaga. You have one architect/intellectual/wise older brother figure in Tygra. You have one young, brash, heroic but kind of dim main character in Lion-O. You have the token black guy as the strong gruff mechanic in Panthro. And you have the two cheerful “Thunderkittens” in the kids, Wiley-Kit and Wiley-Kat.

And then you have Cheetara. What the hell was Cheetara’s purpose? To be the woman and look hot in the leotard while being vaguely maternal? She could run fast and was dimly, conveniently psychic. But where the male characters at least had some stereotypical, shallow quality to serve as their personality (grandpa/big brother/brash hero/gruff strongman/playful kids), she had *nothing* but feminity to define her.

“Today is not the 80’s,” you may say. “We’re much more enlightened now.” In some ways, that is true. Today isn’t the 80’s and shows have evolved to give women more active roles (some of which come with their own sets of problems). However, the attitude that kalinara describes is not dead, nor limited to cartoons of my childhood.

In fact, what she says puts into better words a complaint I made in my open letter to geeky guys. It was regarding a recent publication of the gaming magazine The Escapist (which consistently puts out subpar, and often sexist, articles about women). In it, the author was trying to discuss why he preferred playing “a girl” in online games.

He gives his potential male characters a wide variety of personalities: “Am I the noble hero?” he asks himself, “A backstabbing thief? An insecure wisecracker?… [A]n alpha male…?” So, what does he say of his female characters? “[P]laying a girl puts me in far more neutral territory.” As the default for human, the man gets to choose from a range of archetypes that come easily to Dahlen’s mind. The woman, as Other, doesn’t get to do any of that “normal” stuff; she gets to be “neutral territory.” I’d also like to point out that it falls into mandatory gender roles: the active male versus the passive (neutral) female.

When I talk about women as the Other in this context, it is the same kind of tokenization/relegation of woman to The Woman. Men are normal; they are not defined by their gender but rather the roles in which they are placed – whether it be elderly mentor or noble hero. Sometimes women get these roles, too, but even then their “femininity” is often seen as a paramount feature of their character.

How, then, do we move away from this tokenization? Well, I suggest reading kalinara’s post and the comments on it for starters. Only when we understand why an issue occurs can we truly begin to correct it. So, go, read, and think about the women you see portrayed in the media you engage in – whether it be cartoons, video games, books, or anything else.

Via When Fangirls Attack.

Interesting Take on Gender and Feminism

I came across this untitled post in the feminist_rage LJ about anti-feminist misconceptions about feminism (the OP specifically addresses a white, heterosexual male that she is aquainted with for her rage). One commenter’s words just sort of jumped out at me as interesting [emphasis mine]:

“All feminists really want to do these days is make women into men.”

Oh, wow, that’s hilarious! They just don’t get it, do they? Feminism is about making it okay to NOT be a man. It’s about saying, ‘oh, you’re not a man? Well that’s okay, because you’re still a person.’

[From a post in feminist_rage, comment by nonahs]

I’ve looked at the gender democracy angle from several points of view, but this kind was fresh to me. I’m not sure it would be a useful discourse against an actual anti-feminist, but it’s something to think about at the very least.

Acknowledging Inersections: MRA's, Feminists, and Gender

Hugo posted on MRA’s (Men’s Right’s Activists) and marriage on his thread, Querying the MRAs about marriage. He quoted a few of his resident MRA posters, and I decided to address a (possibly unintentional) implied undertone to one of the quotes about not wanting to be yet another person’s plaything. To which I asked the semi-rhetorical question, “But, somehow, it’s ok for women to go through this?”

For those of you unfamiliar with MRA’s, they’re men belonging to various specific organizations that focus primarily on men’s rights (or lack thereof) in the family court system. On the surface, it seems like a noble goal. And I’m sure for some in their ranks it is just about achieving equal representation in the way the legal system views divorce and child responsibilities. However, where the disconnect happens for me is that most of the MRA’s I’ve come in contact with have wrongfully blamed feminism, and sometimes Western women in general, for their problems.

One of the beliefs that some of them hold that I find to be particularly abhorrent is quoted in Hugo’s post:

As Fenn writes, many men are choosing to pursue immigrant girls from more established cultures who are comfortable in their own less-complex skins and bring their own flourishes of exotica and mystery with them.

First off, calling foreign women (although I’m sure they’d lump the men into a similar category) “less-complex” is insulting and, frankly, wrong. Anyone with a working knowledge of any foreign country would know that people are people, no matter where they live. Coming from a different culture in no way invalidates one’s personhood; it just makes it hard for people ignorant of everything but their own culture to understand the person in question.

Second of all, this whole Othering of (foreign) women is so 1950s. “Exotica and mystery”? Come on. All that is just a pretty way to saying that they don’t want to be bothered with someone they have to see as a human being. Far better for them to do the mail-order bride thing (a term that by its very nature calls up the idea of buying and shipping property rather than a human being) than actually have to build a relationship with someone who they see as their equal.

While I hope that the whole “mail-order bride” idea is an extreme example of their ideals, it does illustrate a notion that I’ve found expressed in one way or another in all of the MRA posts that I’ve read. All MRA’s seem to support a gender caste system and, indeed, for many of them it is a very strict gender caste system. In general, they want their men and women to subscribe to the cult of masculinity and the cult of femininity respectively, meaning breadwinning patriarchs supported by submissive housewives.

They rage on and on about court systems that support just that notion (female as “natural” mother, male as monetary provider) but refuse to acknowledge that a gender democracy is needed for those systems to change.

In Hugo’s thread I accused them of hypocrisy:

I just don’t understand how someone could be more than willing to see their own oppression while being unwilling (unable?) to see how their exact circumstances apply to women – indeed how their exact circumstances have applied to women for centuries.

Now, after all my discussion on how the MRA movement supports a gender caste, how it blames feminism/Western women for their woes, and how it wants its advocates to be the sole victims of the system, I’m going to turn around and apply my quoted statement to feminism.

I have been witness to several feminists denying that sexism against men (both institutionalized and individual) exists. Indeed, while feminism is in general a movement that focuses on not only female oppression, but also the way that many different oppressions (racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc) intersect, many feminists have a hard time acknowledging links between one or more of these oppressions. Heck, if I dug deep enough I’m sure I would have a hard time linking at least one oppression to feminism.

To be fair to the feminists I’m referring to, their statements were always in reference to men coming into their spaces and trying to de-rail their discussions by whining about how they were hurt by x, too. It wasn’t about these men’s experiences, though, it was about monopolizing the conversation and taking the emphasis off of the issues at hand. This, understandably, made the replies angry and harsh. To be further fair to the discussion, the valid concerns that occasionally popped up lead a few of the feminists to create an offshoot community called Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too. The fact that it’s not a very active community is likely a testimony to how many of those “but men are hurt by x, too” debates weren’t real comments to foster discussion, but rather hurtful attempts to halt meaningful examination of topics.

But, for all my fairness, the reality exists: some feminists either refuse to acknowledge that the way the patriarchy oppresses men directly relates to the oppression of women, or even that the patriarchy can oppress men at all.

Of course, the most obvious expression of the patriarchy oppressing men is already given in my MRA primer: gender caste. The cult of masculinity operates on the principle that a man must be “masculine” because being “feminine” is beneath him. I challenge any reader, feminist or no, to demonstrate how that isn’t 1) male oppression by the patriarchy, and/or 2) directly linked to the oppression of women.

The governing principle of a gender caste system is to force all people to worship at the altar of its gender cults. That means that while the cult of masculinity affords men many more privileges than the cult of femininity affords women, it takes away men’s choices in self-expression as readily as it takes away women’s choices. Indeed, living in a society where second-wave feminism has gained me the right to enter the male sphere, I’d say that ostensibly that the cult of masculinity was more rigid than its sister cult. Of course, being the gender that is seen as “lesser”, I’d say that women are still getting the short end of the stick. I just acknowledge that the goal of freeing women from oppression will also free men: in a gender democracy I won’t be the second sex and, therefore, all men will be free to explore their “feminine” sides without fear of being seen as inferior.

On the MRA’s end, that means that equality will be achieved in family court because relationships will be seen as partnerships instead of hierarchies. Of course, equality will come at a high cost for those who believe in gender caste; in order to get equal representation, they must first accept equal responsibility: in the relationship, in and outside the home, and in raising the children.

The Gender Similarities Hypothesis

Janet Shibley Hyde is my hero. No, seriously. You may have read about her in the BBC, The Times, or The Guardian. I did (via Mind the Gap) and, for once, the coverage didn’t make me want to beat my head against the wall. But, pop-science is pop-science, no matter how good the reporting may be; if I’m ever in doubt of that all I need to do is read the uninformed opinion espoused by David Schmitt that The Times thought was worthy of printing. Suffice it to say, in order to learn about the article I had to go to the source.

What follows is part summary of Hyde’s paper, part critique of the pop-science articles. I hope to give a better understanding of Hyde’s work while showing how inadequate even good reporting can be when conveying complex ideas such as the gender similarities hypothesis. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations come from Hyde (2005)1.

Before I go into the study itself, I’d like to explain the term “meta-analysis” that’s been thrown around and vaguely defined in the articles.

From the published study itself:

Meta-analysis is a statistical method for aggregating research findings across many studies of the same question (Hedges & Becker, 1986). It is ideal for synthesizing research on gender differences, an area which often dozens or even hundreds of studies of a particular question have been conducted.

Basically, this method uses the findings of a bunch of studies and runs them through a size effect equation (to measure the magnitude of an effect). These individual effects are averaged to obtain overall effect sizes that reflect the magnitude across all of the studies. I’m neither a psychologist nor particularly up on my math, but logically meta-analysis seems to be a fairly reliable measuring system. However, keep in mind that it is only as accurate as the studies it relies on.

The Hypothesis:

The gender similarities hypothesis holds that males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables. That is, men and women, as well as boys and girls, are more alike than they are different.

See, I told you science was on my side when it comes to supporting a gender democracy. Hyde goes on to say that most psychological gender differences are negligible (close-to-zero and small), while some fall into the moderate range, and very few into large/very large in the (roughly) six categories she studied. Those categories are cognitive variables, verbal/nonverbal communication, social/personality variables, psychological well-being, motor behaviors, and miscellaneous constructs.

In the paper, Hyde gives data for 128 effect sizes, 4 of which were unable to be classified due to the wide range for the estimate. In support of her hypothesis, 30% of the effect sizes were close-to-zero and 48% were small. In essence, 78% of the data shows little to no support for gender differences, while the remaining 22% shows moderate to large. Again, this is the raw data without any interpretation; variables such as context have not been taken into account at this stage.

Hyde devotes a small section to discussing the moderate to high differences. The areas she addresses are motor performance, sexuality, and aggression. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out where The Times is misleading in its reporting.

First, they said of the gender differences that, “in aggression – men were more prone to anger.” Having read the study, I did not see any evidence or conclusion to that effect. Hyde says that “the evidence is ambiguous regarding the magnitude of the gender difference in relational aggression.” She cites differences in effect sizes between physical and verbal, as well as significant differences between direct observation, peer ratings, and self-reported aggression. Later on, in her discussion of context, she cites a significant difference in individuated (ie. highly personal environments) studies of aggression, but in the deindividuated ones (ie. anonymous environments) that difference disappeared. According to Hyde’s research: “In short, the significant gender difference in aggression disappeared when gender norms were removed.” The BBC, it should be noted, picked up on this study and portrayed it in a way accurate to the text.

Second, The Times claimed: “Men were also, the psychologists found, better at skills involving co-ordination such as throwing.” While it is true that one of the moderate to high differences was motor performance, particularly throwing distances, claiming that men are “better at skills involving co-ordination” is misleading. Indeed, since age was definitely a factor (the sizes significantly changed “after puberty, when the gender gap in muscle mass and bone size widens”), it is necessary to note that the physical differences between the genders is as, if not more, important a contributor to this difference as the psychological ones. None of the three news sites pointed out age and physical differences as a significant factor in the throwing example, but The Times is the only one that used different language than the one in Hyde’s paper to describe the difference in throwing distance.

I’d also like to point out that Hyde misses the connection between measures of sexuality (masturbation and attitudes about casual sex) and context. While I have no doubt that the reporting of such attitudes reflected a moderate to high gender difference, there are large bodies of research devoted to examining how socialization affects such attitudes. From research, as well as my own experiences as a woman, I am confident that the gender differences noted in sexuality are largely, if not completely, due to socialization rather than an innate difference. I would be surprised if we were to achieve a gender democracy and not see sexuality become another area that supported the gender similarities hypothesis.

Going back to the news articles, I found it disappointing that all three of them chose to ignore one of the big parts of Hyde’s research: her section on developmental trends. Her findings are key to understanding the problems inherent in our educational system. In addressing the stereotypes surrounding girls and math (in this case, males being better at high-level computations and girls being better at low-level ones), it was found that there was a slight gender difference in favor of the girls for low-level calculations until high school, when no difference in computation was found. For complex calculations, the opposite was found; up until high school no disparity existed, but after that a slight difference in favor of the boys emerged. Clearly, age difference was the driving factor in the magnitude of the gender effect.

She also examines a disparity that forms before high school with girls and computer self-efficacy:

This dramatic trend leads to questions about what forces are at work transforming girls from feeling as effective with computers as boys do to showing a large difference in self-efficacy by high school.

Hyde concludes this section by stating that the fluctuations seen at different ages does not fit with the differences model nor the idea that gender differences are large and stable. Again, this section is an important one for interpreting the data provided by the meta-analysis method, especially with application to education and socialization.

Another important factor in interpreting the data is context. Hyde gives the aggression example (described above), as well as further deconstructing the girls-are-bad-at-math stereotype, examining the impact of socialization using the social-role theory, gender-based interruptions of conversations, and looking at smiling differences. I won’t go into detail about every one of them, but I would like to highlight her findings on women and mathematics.

In one experiment, male and female college students with equivalent math backgrounds were tested (Spencer et al., 1999). In one condition, participants were told that the math test had shown gender differences in the past, and in the other condition, they were told that the test had been shown to be gender fair – that men and women had performed equally on it. In the condition in which participants had been told that the math test was gender fair, there were no gender differences on the test. In the condition in which participants expected gender differences, women underperformed compared with men. This simple manipulation of context was capable of creating or erasing gender differences in math performance.

Proof that one doesn’t have to hold a gun to your head in order to influence you. Though not particularly surprising or novel, it is nonetheless disturbing to see such a visible example of how deeply affected we can be by our socialization.

As if the above weren’t a good enough example alone to prove the “costs of inflated claims of gender differences”, Hyde devotes an entire section to it. Citing, job discrimination, the girls and math stereotype, problems in heterosexual relationships, and lack of recognition of male self-esteem problems, she does a pretty thorough job of proving her assertion that gender essentialism does, indeed, have a high cost. I won’t go into detail here either, The Guardian article did a good summary of her points, but I can’t resist quoting one part: “Meta-analyses… indicate a pattern of gender similarities for math performance.” In your face, Larry Summers!

I am, obviously, in support of the gender similarities hypothesis. However, I dare any naysayer to find as convincing a body of evidence, supported by previous meta-analyses as this one is, that shows the opposite. No matter what one may want to believe about gender, this is not one woman’s lonely study being touted as The End All, Be All. This is a compilation of 46 different meta-analyses (covering many studies each) over the past 20 years. That’s huge.

All I can say is that I hope Hyde’s study continues to be elaborated on and that the media takes a hint from her warnings and stops printing pop-science crap. Okay, I shouldn’t hold my breath on the latter, but I firmly believe that the former is a sign of progress towards a true gender democracy. And, really, progress is really all that matters in the end.

1. Hyde, Janet Shibley. September 2005. ‘The Gender Similarities Hypothesis’. American Psychologist 60 No. 6: 581-592.