Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Idiosyncratic Sexism" Isn't Idiosyncratic

Look at the picture:

Which is coded "male" and which is coded "female"? It sounds like a stupid question. It really isn't. The one we see as inherently masculine, and thus male, has no markers as such. "He" has no testicles. "He" has no hairstyle specific to men - the hairstyle on the figure we see as feminine is exactly the same. "He" is masculine for two reasons: the other figure is "clearly" feminine, and because male is the default gender. "He" needs no signifiers. Absent any, we assume the figure is male. 

Simone de Beauvoir has written, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." In that one line, there are a myriad of different readings. I've pondered many of them. But the figures above illustrate the interpretation I like best, that I see as best representing what my own take on the thing is. And that is this: 

Gender is both real, and made.

Women learn how to be women from a young age. Men learn how to be men from a young age. But in the case of stick figures, books written in the singular before the implementation of "s/he", and medical studies, men (and boys) are the default.

There is nothing idiosyncratic about sexism, aside from the fact that it happens and is accepted. There are people who display their sexism idiosyncratically, like Keith Olbermann, who has engaged in sexist remarks when it comes to women he doesn't like or doesn't agree with. But sexism, from representation in films to representation in medical research to representation in government, is profoundly linked to certain historic - and systemic - elements. To deny the role sexism - unintended, unexamined, unrecognized sexism - plays in these areas is to deny the very truth of the matter. The truth of the matter is that men, mostly white and able-bodied and middle-class, are still generally in charge. 

Look at Pixar's roster. Look at the people running Pixar: Steve Jobs, John Lassetter, Jim Morris. 
Look at the writers: Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Bob Peterson, Pete Doctor, John Lassetter.

There's nothing idiosyncratic about a bunch of men writing movies about men. It is seen as much more idiosyncratic for men to write about women, and strong women. Those men get asked questions like, "Why do you always write these strong female characters?"

Which is why describing sexism as idiosyncratic kind of misses the point about the big deal regarding sexism. It isn't that only Pixar's films don't do a good enough job representing women. It is that films don't do a good enough job representing women. I pick on Pixar for a couple of reasons:

1) I love Pixar films.
2) Pixar is a studio that consistently makes thoughtful, complex, daring films that are commercially viable.
3) Pixar is a children's film studio, and it is important to show children media with both girls and boys as the main protagonists.

It's important in other films as well. There is a line in America's Sweethearts,
I really want to play a character like the Terminator, you know, because I think the Hispanic people are crying out to see a deadly, destructive, killing machine that they can embrace as their own, you know, that they can relate to...
Now I don't know if women necessarily need a female deadly killing machine. But there is a problem when, as Joss Whedon says, "all it takes is one Catwoman to set the cause back a decade."

That isn't an example of Pixar's "idiosyncratic" sexism. This is an industry-wide issue.

Look at the statistics compiled by Women & Hollywood:
2008

Only 6 of the top 50 grossing films (12 of the top 100 films) starred or were focused on women.
Women comprised 9% of all directors.
Women accounted for 12% of writers.
Women comprised 16% of all executive producers.
...
...
Women comprise only 23% of film critics at daily newspapers. (San Diego State)
2007

In 2007, women only comprised 15% of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 grossing films. (San Diego State)
In 2007, only 6% of the top 250 grossing films were directed by women. (San Diego State)
In 2007, only 5 of the top 50 films starred or were focused on women.
Of the 6,833 single speaking characters in the film nominated for best picture from 1977-2006 only 27.3% were females. (USC)
Women make up 27% of TV writers and 19% of film writers (WGAW)
2006

In 2006, less than a dozen of the 307 films eligible for an Oscar were women driven (EW).
In 2006, only 3 movies in the top 50 starred or were focused on women. (EW)
And one of the reasons for this is direct discrimination, both historic and current. But part of it is the discouragement one receives when one doesn't see oneself reflected in a particular industry/job. I'm not saying this happens with every person; obviously, it doesn't. If it did, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would have never run for president, because no one who looked like them had won that job before. But I wonder about how many kids never even entertained the thought of becoming president. I know I didn't, and I can't say whether that is because I saw no one who looked like me on my presidential flashcards or because I honestly didn't think I, as an individual, had the ability to do so. I do know that my cousin - a tall, muscular, multiracial guy - wanted to be a kindergarden teacher. I do know the constant discouragement, both direct and oblique, eventually pushed him away from that path.

I know that as much as everyone is an individual, we are also shaped by our experiences - by how those around us react. I know that there is a reason why women are better at chess when they are unaware their opponent is a guy. I know there is a reason why "white males got higher customer satisfaction ratings than women or people of color, whether they were doctors, university bookstore employees, or staffers at a golf course."

And I know that the reason Pixar is only a year younger than me and has yet to release a film with a female protagonist isn't idiosyncratic in the least. Instead, it is merely par for the course. Which is why it is sexism, and why sexism is dangerous.

12 comments:

MediaMaven said...

The male in the picture has a much bigger upper body than the female. Her legs are thinner, too. :)

petpluto said...

Ha!

I was going to mention the shoulders, because my shoulders (and most of the women I know) don't have shoulders that slope like that of the women's room stick figure. I've got the men's room stick figure shoulders. Not line-backer, but pretty square.

mikhailbakunin said...

Three questions:

First, how would you revise this picture, using the same silhouetted images?

Second, if the results of this study were reversed -- if customers rated white men more negatively -- how would you interpret those result? Would you assume that white men are at a social disadvantage?

Third, the results of this study indicate that women tend to "choose a more defensive style when playing with men." This leads to poorer performance. Could this deficiency be caused by female chess players stereotyping male chess players as more aggressive?

petpluto said...

Disclaimer: I can't click on any of the links, cuz I'm at work.

if the results of this study were reversed -- if customers rated white men more negatively -- how would you interpret those result? Would you assume that white men are at a social disadvantage?

I think one of the issues with your approach to gender studies is the individual nature of it. Looking at the picture more holistically gives a better indication of whether or not someone is at a social disadvantage.

However, there have been studies done about how white men have been historically received in jobs normally seen as "women's work". Stay-at-home dads, male teachers in elementary school, men nurses. And there is a social discouragement toward those men in those jobs - there is a social disadvantage to those men for taking those jobs or wanting those jobs. Look at the movie Kindergarden Cop - the mothers thought that Arnold's character was going to be a freak (or gay) because he was a kindergarden teacher. That places men at a social disadvantage, because it is assumed they are deficient in some way.

Could this deficiency be caused by female chess players stereotyping male chess players as more aggressive?

It could. I'm not making any assumptions about the base cause. I'm not saying the men on the other side of the chess board make women feel badly about themselves. I'm saying that there's gendered reason not based in objective truth as to why these things happen.

It's like those standardized tests. If you somehow remind a girl she is a girl before she takes the test, she tends to do more poorly in the math and science sections. Without that reminder, the scores improve. We unconsciously put emphasis on gender and gender differences when those genders in ways that can be categorically studied.

petpluto said...

if the results of this study were reversed -- if customers rated white men more negatively -- how would you interpret those result? Would you assume that white men are at a social disadvantage?

I should say this:

I think, in order for customers to consistantly rate white men more negatively across the board, I think there would have to be a gargantuan shift in social forces. In order for white men to be seen as worse even when there are no objective factors for that assessment, white men would almost assuredly have to had faced the same kinds of circumstances that lead to women and minorities being assessed more negatively.

In other words, these sorts of studies don't take place in a vacuum.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I've always hated that damn "skirt" figure... teaches little girls when they are mere toddlers, that the definition of female is bascially: "skirt"... argh!

MediaMaven said...

There's only one woman I can think of who has linebacker shoulders, and she was a classmate of ours. Most of us don't look like stick figures, obviously.

I understand what you're saying about women always being "the other", but how would you propose designing an easy-to-decipher image that can be replicated and understood cross-culturally without having designated gender markers?

At first, I did not like the Boston Globe article--I did not find it well-written or executed, but now I find that it is an editorial. It's not a particularly good one either (the instructions at the end that Americans need to recognize their unconscious biases, while nice to acknowledge, is too simple and not explicit enough).

mikhailbakunin said...

I'm still curious how you would revise this picture, using the same silhouetted images.

I think that looking at history is important, but narratives based off of history can be -- and typically are --misleading. There are often large elements of truth to any narrative, but narratives are inherently limiting -- especially when the evidence in support of a given narrative is filtered through that very narrative.

My feeling is that narratives oversimplify an often complex picture. Narratives provide clarity and certainty, but they also foster intellectual rigidity. Narratives cannot be easily adapted to changing circumstances. And narratives almost always crowd out contradictory evidence.

You're right that social experiments don't take place in a vacuum. That’s why I think that studies of this kind are often impossible to design. How can you adequately control for all of the subtle forces that shape our perceptions of people? How can you objectively interpret the results?

You said, "It's like those standardized tests. If you somehow remind a girl she is a girl before she takes the test, she tends to do more poorly in the math and science sections. Without that reminder, the scores improve."

I'm sure that's true. But I’m sure that looking at the methodology of that study would raise many other important questions. How was this study designed? Was it a simple, double-arm experiment? How were those "reminders" delivered? What were the controls? Were boys also tested, and in the same way? Did the experimenters try to subtly influence girls' test scores using other, gender-neutral reminders?
A big part of the problem -- and one of the reasons it’s so hard to measure these things -- is that women are more susceptible than men to stress and depression. We don’t really know what’s driving that. The reasons are very complex, and often difficult to understand.

It’s more than fair to argue that socialization plays an important role in all this. I agree with that. The problem, for me, is that when we argue over specific examples of sexism, you often seem to retreat behind a very broad, carefully-constructed narrative. The narrative is offered up as proof that your reading of the situation is more accurate. It becomes the trump card.

But how can anyone argue with a narrative? Narratives have their own internally consistent -- but ultimately impenetrable -- logic.

petpluto said...

Sorry I haven't responded until now - I was dealing with death stuff and going to a funeral.

how would you propose designing an easy-to-decipher image that can be replicated and understood cross-culturally without having designated gender markers?

The problem for me (at the moment, I may have a different problem later) is that there are no gender markers on the guy. It is clear that he is a guy with an absence of markers.

I'm still curious how you would revise this picture, using the same silhouetted images.

I don't know how I would revise the image on bathroom stalls. I'm mired in the same old crap that makes images like this commonplace and not worth a second glance. Bringing that second glance to it, having someone say, "Wonder why that is", is really what I aim to do here.

The problem, for me, is that when we argue over specific examples of sexism, you often seem to retreat behind a very broad, carefully-constructed narrative.

The problem for me is that when we argue over specific examples of sexism, it seems difficult for you to acknowledge that I may be more versed than you in the subject, both just by the fact that I do have to deal with this on an almost constant basis and that I have put a lot of time and energy into studying it.

The problem for me is that you have your own narrative, and yet it seems that only my narrative is the problem.

I understand what you're saying about narratives, but I also think you do me a disservice by assuming that I am (a) entrenched in the narrative you have constructed for me, and (b) married to my own narrative.

The PETA post I wrote about the different veggie pictures, you brought up good points - and it changed my interpretation of how the images could - and should - be read. But with arguments over sexism, you oftentimes seem to begin and end with "I don't think this is sexism, because I think socialization is less of a factor than you do". How is that going to change my mind? How is that going to appropriately challenge not only my own lived experience by the myriad and varied works I've read, by feminists and nonfeminists alike?

You say that narratives "almost always crowd out contradictory evidence". And I agree. But what you don't seem to recognize is that either you're arguing something from your own narrative's position - and in that case, I stand firm in that expecting your narrative to be privileged over mine isn't going to happen, especially here, in my space - or that you're arguing something from an entirely different angle than I am.

Take the princess thing. There are many reasons why I don't like princess culture for girls. There are many reasons why I don't mind princess culture for girls. But at the end of the day, my issue with yet another princess film isn't about princess culture as a destructive or positive force. It's that there are already a damn lot of princess films, and that even if there is a biological component to girls loving all things princessy (doubtful, but okay), even if princessy crap doesn't hurt girls, girls still shouldn't be inundated with one or two or three types of girl figures to excess. There are so many more films with boy protagonists than girls, in all age ranges, that it is easy for one type of girl to dominate the girl-oriented films in a way that it isn't as easy for one type of boy to dominate boy-oriented films. That's the issue at hand for me.

mikhailbakunin said...

You said, "The problem for me is that when we argue over specific examples of sexism, it seems difficult for you to acknowledge that I may be more versed than you in the subject, both just by the fact that I do have to deal with this on an almost constant basis and that I have put a lot of time and energy into studying it."

This seems to me like a kind of reverse ad hominem. It doesn't say anything about the rightness of your claims.

When I bring this up, you tend to invert the issue and insist that I am engaging in an ad hominem, simply by questioning your very personalized premises.

This is a big part of my problem. You often say that my arguments put you at an automatic disadvantage. But isn't arguing that you know more and that I can't understand putting me at the ultimate disadvantage? How would you feel if I made this kind of argument? How could you possibly respond?

If you think I have a narrative, I'd be happy to consider that. The reason I challenge you is because I think your self-selected (and often very personalized) evidence paints an overly simplistic picture of a complex issue in a complex society.

But I don't really know the answers to any of these larger questions. I think we need to acknowledge that these issues are complex and that it's often difficult to get at actual causes. That doesn't mean that sexism doesn't exist or that the evidence you present is necessarily wrong.

I just think the grand narrative that you construct is inherently limiting. That is my only real "narrative," as far as I can tell.

BTW, I was wondering why you fell off the radar. I didn't know you had to attend a funeral. I'm sorry. Was it someone close?

petpluto said...

This is a big part of my problem. You often say that my arguments put you at an automatic disadvantage. But isn't arguing that you know more and that I can't understand putting me at the ultimate disadvantage?

I think arguing that I know more about one subject matter is an advantage to me; I frequently respect and even defer to your opinions regarding things like constitutional law, the Supreme Court's rulings, and economic theory, because although I have a basic knowledge of those subjects, I can readily admit that you know more, that you are more of an expert - because you have worked at becoming so. I may have an opinion, I may voice that opinion, but I also acknowledge - by the way I engage and how I engage - that you are more of a scholar in certain specific areas than I am. Thus, I am at a disadvantage in those types of discussions; but it is a disadvantage of my own making. If I wanted to, I could theoretically work up to your level of knowledge. If I had the desire, I could read more about the Supreme Court, and I could study economics in a more meaningful way than I do now.

If we're talking about gender, then my advantage over you is that I've put a lot of time and energy into studying this specific field, that I've taken classes, that I've read works by diverse authors, and that I've put a lot of time and energy - time and energy I could have been spending boning up on constitutional law - into this, because this is what I'm interested in.

If you think I have a narrative, I'd be happy to consider that.

I think everyone has a narrative. It isn't you-specific or me-specific. In terms of gender, though, I do think you tend to follow the some of the conventional dominant societal wisdom regarding gender, gender differences, and what counts as sexism. I think that in terms of gender, I have tried very hard to at the very least analyze some of those dominant societal wisdoms. I don't think I have all of the answers; I don't even think I have a lot of the answers. But I do know that I have a lot of questions, and that you tend to foist answers upon me - like in the great "socialization vs biological" debate. I don't know which side I fall on, and I've been very clear about that. I think it is probably different for different individuals.

I don't really know the answers to any of these larger questions. I think we need to acknowledge that these issues are complex and that it's often difficult to get at actual causes. That doesn't mean that sexism doesn't exist or that the evidence you present is necessarily wrong.

Two things:

I agree entirely that the issues are complex.

But there are inherent disadvantages to arguing these things or pondering these things on a blog, where something that could take several whole books to properly dissect gets beaten down into a blog post length readers won't run screaming from.

I think your self-selected (and often very personalized) evidence paints an overly simplistic picture of a complex issue in a complex society.

I don't think my picture of society is simplistic. I oftentimes don't go into the hows and whys someone is sexist or the root reason something has developed to be sexist. I think you take a blog post, that is by its very nature a more truncated form of examining issues, and the extrapolate that I must have a very simplistic world view indeed.

I'm sorry. Was it someone close?

Thanks, and yes. She was one of my favorite aunts (though technically a great aunt). She was only 62, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. I don't know if you know about them, but she was one of my Queens relatives.

mikhailbakunin said...

You said, "If we're talking about gender, then my advantage over you is that I've put a lot of time and energy into studying this specific field, that I've taken classes, that I've read works by diverse authors, and that I've put a lot of time and energy - time and energy I could have been spending boning up on constitutional law - into this, because this is what I'm interested in."

Fair enough. You do put more effort into learning about this subject, and I definitely respect that. But I think I should say that if you challeneged my view on a Supreme Court decision, I would never try to undermine your position by saying that I know more about constitutional law.

I don't think that's what you're trying to do here, but I'm just saying that I can concede that you may know more without conceding the point. Would you agree?

I think it would also be fair for you to say that I have an inherent bias that impacts what I read on the subject. Like you, I try to overcome that bias and read things from multiple perspectives, but I'm not always successful.

You wrote, "But there are inherent disadvantages to arguing these things or pondering these things on a blog, where something that could take several whole books to properly dissect gets beaten down into a blog post length readers won't run screaming from."

Absolutely. Again, that's a fair point. I think my problem is that I don't always know what you're getting at. Maybe I read into what you're saying sometimes, but it seems like your argument is often more than just a basic questions about gender and socializations. I think that's a longer conversation that we have to have about what we believe and why. Because we often seem to be talking past each other and stereotyping each other's beliefs.

I'm really sorry about your aunt. That's very sad. :(