The Problem With Words

Have you ever tried to keep track of the number of words you say in a day? No. Of course you haven’t, no one has.  It’s because language is so ubiquitous and accessible that we don’t stop to think about it.  You don’t tell someone to “choose their words carefully” for nothing.  With all these free words running around it seems a little funny that we can easily become bogged down in them.

My inspiration for this blog comes from the keynote address at this year’s NWSA conference.  Delivered by the brilliant and funny (p.s. who knew she was funny?) Patricia Hill Collins the speech touched on the future(s) of feminism and some of the issues surrounding the current state of language and identifiers within the field of women’s studies.  She seemed to be making the claim that we (as feminist academics) are getting stuck on what we call ourselves and losing sight of the work we’re doing.  For instance she called out programs that use identifiers such as: “post modern women’s studies” and  “critical race studies” asking, “aren’t all race studies critical?”  

I felt validated to hear such a prominent and prolific scholar address many of the problems I have been experiencing within the field. For many years I have encountered people, both within the classroom and the larger field, who seem to be more concerned with the latest terminology than with the meaning behind the words.  People who are so busy ensuring that they are using the “right” words that they can’t be bothered to do the class readings, you know who I’m talking about.  But I thought it must have just been the people in my spaces, I had little idea that this is a field-wide issue.  Indeed, an issue large enough that PHC felt compelled to direct an entire keynote address towards it.  

I don’t mean to suggest that we should pay no attention to the words we use or the categories by which we identify, but rather that those things are not the most important things.  In fact, I would argue that they are not even the second or third most important things.  What I believe should matter is the work behind the words.  As 3rd wave feminist scholars we owe it to ourselves to thoroughly examine our spaces, our bodies, and our cultural texts in order to establish new epistemologies and uncover lost histories.  It seems to me that in lieu of aggressive scholarship we have substituted aggressive concern for linguistics.  Once again, I do not mean to suggest that all the current WGS scholars are guilty of this crime but am merely making observations about larger trends within the field.

So where do we go now?  This is the question PHC posed to the NWSA audience, and the question to which she gave no concrete answers.  As much as I would have appreciated a how-to handbook from PHC I recognize that there is no one way to remedy this issue.  It requires, in part, that we allow ourselves to be a little less concerned with political correctness.  Meaning, don’t let your fear of potentially offending someone stop you from pursuing the larger question.  It also means that those of us within the WGS community need to be a little more receptive and welcoming to people who might not know what it means to be “cis-gendered” or have a clue what “post modern critical queer theory” is all about.  And most importantly, for me at least, is the restoration of a sense of urgency and relevancy within the field at large.  Let’s not get so mired in words that we forget what our focus is, the meaning behind those words.

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It Can Get Worse: Reflecting on “The Choice”

In my previous post I discussed Fox’s new dating show, The Choice, but in light of last night’s episode I would like to revisit that show. And since it’s my blog, that’s what Imma do.  For those of you unfamiliar with The Choice it’s exactly like The Voice, but it’s a dating show.  Four bachelors, or in this week’s case bachelorettes, chose a date based only on their voice. kind of. Each contestant has 30seconds to get one or more bachelor/ettes to turn their chairs around, based only on the competitors voice.

Last night’s (6/28) episode of The Choice shook things up by “reversing the roles.” Instead of four “celebrity” bachelor’s in the chairs, it was four bachelorettes. Gender role reversal, never gets old.  I was interested to see who qualified as a “celebrity bachelorette” and if the show would follow the same format as if it were men in the chairs.  I didn’t think I could get any angrier at Fox, I was wrong.

The four women included a Playboy Playmate of the year, a model/pop singer, a former Miss USA winner, and Carmen Electra.  Even though the women were purportedly the one’s holding the power they were dressed no differently than if they were the ones competing for a date.  While the show’s bachelor’s often appear casually dressed down in t-shirts and jeans, or other casual combinations, these four women were decked out in full make-up, barely there dresses, and six-inch heels.  And the discrepancies didn’t stop there.  From the time the first eligible man stepped on the stage, I knew this was a totally different show.

Usually the women competing to win a date rely solely on thinly veiled, and often cheap, sexual innuendo to get the bachelor’s to turn their chairs around.  Phrases like “I like to get dirty”, “I have six hidden tattoos, but if you turn around, I’ll show you where they are,” and my personal favorite “I’ve got a body like Jessica Rabbit” have all been uttered by female competitors.  Additionally, the audience is often informed that the competitor is a gymnast, a dancer, very flexible etc.  When women are competing for men it is inescapably clear that sex and conventional sexiness are what matter.  In order to capture a man’s interest a woman should automatically divulge intimate details, and make it painfully obvious that she is hot, and down to party.  She is not encouraged to discuss her educational pursuits, her career, her family, basically anything that would locate her within the realm of “real woman” and not “fantasy girl” should be avoided.  If she does mention something “real,” as did one competitor who stated that she was a lawyer, it must immediately be followed up by a reference to one’s hotness in order to assure the men that they need not fear her intelligence.  When men compete for celebrity bachelorettes, however, the rules change.

In general, the men do not expound on their sexual prowess or offer intimate descriptions of their physical selves.  Rather, they spend their thirty seconds discussing their careers, their advanced degrees, and how close they are to their families.  In order to capture a woman’s attention a man must firmly ground himself in the “real world,” with a “real” job, and “real” interests.  The man, whether he be competing or choosing, is constructed as a legitimate, actual, important human being.  He does not need to be validated on the basis of his conventional attractiveness because his accomplishments and other qualities matter.  In short, he matters.

The men lucky enough to make it to the second round of The Choice were spared yet another humiliation that the women normally have to endure.  When a woman is chosen to be part of the “dating pool” she is made to wear a sash (intentionally designed to resemble a pageant sash) that bears the name of the man who chose her, making it explicitly clear that she belongs to him.  The men on last night’s show wore no such sash, they were allowed to retain their individuality, they remain unbranded.

As I suggested in my previous post, the women are not the one’s holding the power, they are not even close to the power.  Even when they are the one’s in the chairs, doing the choosing, they are undermined.  It is also worth noting that all of the bachelorettes on last night’s show are famous because of their conventional hotness, not their skills or accomplishments.  We reward them because they are pretty, not because they matter.

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‘Take Me Out’ or ‘Laugh At Me’

Recently, FOX debuted two new dating shows, one of which is called Take Me Out.  Hosted by George Lopez (why is he hosting this show?) the concept is fairly straightforward: 30 women all vying to win a date with the same guy.  The women each stand behind a podium while one man extols his virtues for their approval.  If a woman does not like something she sees or hears she “turns off her light,” at which point her podium turns red signaling her disinterest.  If the man makes it through three rounds of peacocking with at least one light left on, he wins a date.  If there is more than one light left on the man then chooses whom he’d like to date.

This is good right? Finally a show where the women hold the power, where they are not forced to parade around in swimsuits for the chance to get a rose. Hooray for feminism!  Not exactly.

It’s true, I didn’t expect progressive empowerment from a FOX reality show, but I was also unprepared for the sheer level of humiliation that is Take Me Out.  While watching the first episode my partner turned to me and said, “I feel like I’m watching the end of the world.”  And I’m not entirely convinced that he isn’t right. 

Despite the fact that the women are purportedly “in control,” they are still infantilized and frequently commodified.  George Lopez (no, seriously, what is he doing here?) often refers to the women as “my ladies,” “our gorgeous girls,” or “my flirty thirty.” So clever.  At the beginning of each episode the women parade onto the stage in a blur of spandex, spiked heels, and more fake hair than you’ll find in wig shop.  Even though the women are the ones making the dating decisions, they still must dress for “their” man.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a skirt longer than mid thigh, let alone a pair of pants, among this bunch.  FOX is making it clear that the women are not free from judgment, they are still expected to look “hot.” Because, in the end, the man is still the one making the choice.

The show has only aired three episodes, but so far all the women are heterosexual, thin, able bodied, and conventionally attractive.  No, “hot.”  Every woman on this show is “hot,” not pretty, not even quietly beautiful, they are all desperately, loudly, obnoxiously hot.  Everything they do, wear, and say seems designed to remind the viewer of their hotness.  When the women are allowed to speak, which is not often, the words coming out of their mouths are usually some kind of innuendo.  And bad innuendo at that.  The viewer is never given the chance to forget that these women are hot and, generally, horny.  Conversely, viewers are rarely allowed to construct the women as real people.  We do not know what most of them do for a living, where they’re from, if they have children, or if they went to college.  By omitting this information, FOX cleverly discourages the perception of these women as anything more than sexually available objects.  They are not to be taken seriously.  The “dumb blonde” stereotype is played to the hilt, really the “dumb any woman” stereotype is heavily employed.

In addition to providing stellar commentary, George Lopez also serves as the resident bro for the male contestants.  Lopez and the guy stand on a platform removed from the women, from which they are able to gaze upon the “flirty thirty.”  From this platform the man must “sell himself” to the women by telling them who is he, what he does, etcetc and hoping that they keep their lights on for him.  As previously mentioned, if more than one woman keeps her light on for the guy, he is then granted the power to eliminate the women he does not want.  Without learning anything about them.  While the women, and the viewers, get to know a lot about this guy, the guy makes his choice based solely on physical appearance.  Further supporting the notion that men are “real people” worthy of acknowledgment in the public sphere, indeed we should want to know about this guy, but he does not need to know anything about the women.

Adding to this fiasco is the choreographed movements the women are required to perform when a man leaves the stage.  If no lights are left on and the man is dismissed, the women all sway back and forth and wave goodbye as he exits to music.  If a man does get a date, the women perform bizare choreography while the man and his date exit the stage underscored by “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Subtle.

In addition to being generally disgusted, Take Me Out is a spectacle of carnivalesque proportions.  Viewers are encouraged to laugh at these women, to make a mockery out of them and how far they will go for a date.  We are not to believe, for one second, that these are serious women looking for, or deserving of, love and/or companionship.  They are a joke, a disposable joke.  Indeed, when one woman is chosen and leaves the show, she is immediately replaced by another woman who bears an eery resemblance to the departed lady.  Above all, the entire show feels forced, uncomfortably so, a dynamic which only adds to the mockery.

It is not difficult to imagine that FOX’s next dating show will feature entirely nude, blindfolded women, strapped to conveyor belts anxiously awaiting the approval of male on-lookers, and we’ll call it MeetMarket

 

 

 

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Lifetime’s 7 Days of Sex, or how doin it can save your marriage

On April 26th of this year the Lifetime network premiered their highly anticipated new reality show 7 Days of Sex. And it is precisely what you think it is, married couples having sex with each other for 7 straight days.

The premise of the show is this: each episode follows two couples whose marriages are in trouble.  To save their marriage from collapse each couple has decided to embark on a “revolutionary” (Lifetime’s word, not mine) experiment to see if sex can save a relationship.  Each couple must have sex at least once every day for seven days, and tell America all about it.  Courtesy of a hand-held “diary cam,” viewers see the couple moments before they engage in sex, and again moments after the act has been completed.  At the end of the week the couples decide to recommit to each other or split.

Interestingly enough unlike other reality relationship shows, 7 Days does not invoke the services of any kind of relationship expert, therapist, or counselor.  The sole purpose of the show is to see if having sex with the person you married can save your relationship… excuse me?  There are almost too many problems to unpack, it seems too easy, but let’s discuss, shall we?

Since the show is currently airing, there are only five episodes to discuss, but if they are any indicator of the rest of the season then we should all be seriously concerned.

Let’s start with the obvious problems:

-All the couples are heteronormative.  I like to imagine this means that those of us in queer marriages/partnerships don’t need sex to save us, but that’s just wishful thinking.

-All the couples are able-bodied.  Again, maybe it’s because those of us with disabilities don’t need a week of sex to remedy relationship problems.

-All of the couples seem financially secure.  This is a tricky assumption to make, particularly at a time when most of the country is in a perilous economic situation.  What I mean to say is that all the couples live in conventionally “nice” housing, appear well-kept, and do not discuss any financial hardships on camera.

One thing I will give Lifetime credit for is the inclusion of different races and inter-racial couples.  This is not to suggest that such couples are free from other problematic elements, but simply to note that 7 Days is not a sea of white faces.

One of the things I find most troubling about this “relationship rescue”-style show is the utterly depressing way the couples discuss marriage, and being married.  The phrase “our last hope” is used quite a bit, along with “broken” or “not the same,” the implication being that sex (or lack thereof) is what is really causing this divide and sex, and sex alone, can rectify the situation.  There is rarely a mention of the possibility that simply f***ing each other for a week might not provide the meaningful healing necessary to sustain a healthy relationship. Sex will surely save us.

By placing all of the emphasis on sex, Lifetime is essentially saying that sex is what really matters in a marriage.  Commitment, trust, communication, shared interests, blablabla, sex is the thing that counts.  The couples often wax nostalgic about the “old days” and how much sex they used to have (before the kids got here).  It’s reductionist, but one could make the argument that getting married was what “ruined” these relationships, right?  If things were so great when they were dating, if they had sex all the time and he was romantic and she was fun, why bother to get married and spoil it?  That issue is never really addressed, or never with enough substance to convince me that any of these people WANT to be married at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I think sex is an incredibly important part of any committed partnership.  BUT the ludicrous notion that having sex and talking about it on national television for seven days will somehow magically heal a troubled partnership is, quite frankly, delusional thinking.

More questions to ponder:

-What’s going to happen when the children of these couples find these episodes? What about when their classmates find them?

-Is Lifetime’s next venture going to be 7 Days of Porn where couples are transformed into porn stars for a week in order to save their marriage?

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Faux-lebrities, real anxities

Quick! How many Jersey Shore cast members can you name?  What about Real World housemates? American Idol winners?  Surprised at how many names are popping into your head?

Since the early 2000s, American television has been increasingly saturated with reality programming.  Shows featuring “ordinary” people, people who are “just like you,” have consistently topped the ratings charts.  A large amount of scholarship has been devoted to analyzing various aspects of reality TV (for a particularly compelling perspective check out Jennifer Pozner’s work) and its affect on American viewers, including the perpetuation of misogyny, racism, and other harmful stereotypes.  Personally, I am fascinated by the process by which an otherwise “ordinary” man or woman, achieves celebrity status, and what that means for the “ordinary” viewers who do not achieve such status.

My fascination relates specifically to lifestyle shows, for example; The Real World, Jersey Shore, or The Bad Girls Club.  The lifestyle show has no competition element, no makeover, no talent, it is simply a platform for gazing at “normal” people, it is culturally sanctioned voyeurism.  So we eagerly tune in, week after week, to watch the alcohol fueled drama unfold, and somewhere along the way the “normal” people on the show become A-list celebrities.  They gain cultural capital, we make them important.  One need only look to Rutgers University for a prime example of this mysterious cultural capital.  In 2011, Rutgers shelled out $32,000 to Jersey Shore’s Snooki for a speaking engagement, while commencement speaker Toni Morrison received only $30,000.  Were it not for MTV’s reality show, no one would have the slightest idea who Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is, and they surely would not be paying her thousands of dollars to speak at their school.   

It seems to me that this instant celebrity status, a phenomenon I refer to as “faux-lebrity,” is contributing to the already keen anxiety being experienced by the Millenial generation.  Anxiety that is exacerbated by our constant need for instant gratification.  I would argue that the lifestyle reality show, and the fame that accompanies it, produces a very specific anxiety for its viewers, especially those close in age to the people on the show.  While one might feel jealous of the contestants on American Idol or America’s Best Dance Crew, there is comfort to be taken in the fact that those people are becoming famous because of their very particular skill, their talent.  There is no such comfort to be had when trying to reconcile the faux-lebrity status of someone like Snooki, she is not famous for any talent.  She is famous simply because she is on television.  She is famous because we watch her.

Watching her, paying more attention to her, increases our anxiety.  We become bothered by the unanswerable question: “why not me?” Indeed, why not you? Why not any of us?  Perhaps we begin to compare ourselves to the people on lifestyle shows, trying to decipher what they have that we do not have, figuring out why they are famous and why we are not.  And suddenly we are anxious for no legitimate reason. 

This is where my fascination lies, the intersection between faux-lebrity status and the influence that status wields over our actual lives. 

Maybe if I pay Snooki 32grand she’ll explain it to me.

 

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Unwarranted self-esteem “booster”, or I just wanted chocolate

Picture this, you walk into a walgreens to satisfy your craving for chocolate.  After much deliberation you decide to splurg on a bag of the individually wrapped Dove minis, because you can share some and take some with you and blabla(go with me here).  You pay, exit, and unwrap a piece in the car(some of you may have more self control than I do) and realize that a message of some kind is printed on the inside of the wrapper. Upon further examination, it is determined to be a “motivational” phrase of sorts.  Sayings like “you go girl”,  “you deserve this” and other pointless sentimentalities beam from the wrappers of your chocolate.  And suddenly your chocolate moment has turned into a PSA for self confidence.

Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but not much.

I am unsure who is behind the curtain on Dove’s recent marketing techniques, but it’s clearly someone who thinks that women, and women with self-esteem problems, are the only consumers of chocolate.  Now I am all for clever and/or witty messages hidden on the products I buy, snapple facts and laffy taffy jokes anyone?, but Dove is niether witty nor clever, it is presumptuous and irritating.  Choosing messages like “you go girl” and “you deserve this” sets in motion a dangerous thought process that reifies current societal tropes about American femaleness.  I imagine you could broaden these tropes to include all Western women however, I will use the term American as I’m unsure how far the Dove empire actually reaches.  Let us briefly examine these tropes, beginning with those concerning body image.

In an act of ingenious manipulation, the execs at Dove have managed to use only a few words to cut to the core of American women’s body issues.  Because we are culturally obsessed with thinness we have created a society where we are constantly situating appearance as key to self worth.  The diet industry has been seemingly unaffected by the economic downtown, and are still raking in cash hand over fist.  We are sending the message that pretty(read thin and conventionally attractive) people(read women) are more deserving of happiness, money, love etcetc, for more on this check on Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.  Enter the Dove wrapper message.  By telling the consumer that she “deserves” this chocolate, Dove is implying that there is a merit system by which the chocolate was earned.  And not merely bought from a convenience store.  The chocolate is a reward, because chocolate is generally perceived as an indulgence or a treat the idea is that the woman has disciplined her body enough to have earned a moment of reprieve,aka chocolate.  I think it’s important to ask the bigger question here, that being, who said I didn’t deserve this?

I will not even begin to try and tackle the myriad problems involved in this murky mix of advertising and faux self-esteem.  I will simply say this: I buy chocolate because I like it, and I don’t need a wrapper to validate that choice.

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Why I’m Learning to Love Messy

“Someone is imprisoned in a room if the door is unlocked, opens inwards; but it doesn’t occur to him to pull, rather than push against it” –Wittgenstein via the Heyes translation

 

I begin this post with that famous Wittgenstein quote as a way to remind myself that perspective is everything.

 

As a person I find I like order.  I like to-do lists, highlighters, post-it notes, planning and general stability.  I am not spontaneous; I am careful and methodical to a fault.  Being this kind of person I find that I am most comfortable when I can cleanly categorize what is happening in my life, when everyone and everything falls neatly into place.  At least, that’s who I thought I wanted to be.  I have often found that life is rarely as neat as I want it to be.  Things, people, events are always complicated or on the verge of becoming complicated.  So I have lived most of my life trying desperately to make things fit into categories because I believed that this would make my life easier, more enjoyable, less messy.  When something-a relationship, friendship, or event- got too messy or difficult I found a way to end it, quickly.  I have enjoyed clear categories because (I thought) categories make it easier to know what to do/how to feel/ what the expectations are.  If we are “best friends” I know how to feel, how to build that relationship, I know what the next step is.

You should know that I am a woman obsessed with the next step.  The instant I meet someone I am calculating how they will fit into my life plan in 5years.  Rarely have I celebrated “the moment” because I have been compulsively planning the next moment, and the moment after that and so on, in order to be totally certain and prepared for life.  A lot of this has to do with the persistent fear that if I slow down I will either be forgotten or left behind(another post entirely).  But that’s not the way life works. Nothing is certain. Groundbreaking stuff, right?  Recent events have thrown into stark contrast the reality that meticulously planning my life does not mean life is going to stick to my plan.

It has taken the burning of a friend’s apartment, PhD rejection letters, and the beginning of a wonderful, if not terrifying, romance to make me realize that instead of helping streamline my life, my obsession with categorization is hindering my ability to feel my life.  I am coming to terms with ambiguity, learning to believe that I am exactly where I need to be.  I am trying to embrace the space between.  To love the’ becoming’ as much as the ‘being.’  I am slowly learning that my quiet moments matter as much as my loud ones, that even when I cannot find the words, I still matter.  I am coming to terms with ambiguity and learning that I can enjoy feelings and people without having to clearly articulate exactly what we are doing.

Let’s be clear, I’m not entirely surrendering my painfully methodical way of operating I’m just giving myself permission to be a little messy.

 

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