Samstag, 28. April 2012

The limits of imagination

I'm the first to admit that I'm a fantasy-chick.
LotR, His Dark Materials, Pratchett, Harry Potter, I love them.
Imagination, fantasy, they're important to me, they're wonderful, they're creative.
And quite often, they're settled in a mythical past of our own world.
Obviously, when we're talking about pirates, we're not talking about actual pirates, mostly desperate people who led short violent lives always threatened with execution should they be caught. We're talking about Pirates, like adorable "adopt me" Johnny Depp, kick-ass Keira Knightly and eye-candy Orlando Bloom.
And that's what trickles down to our children. They don't play "die slowly of syphillis" or "drown while simultaneously bleeding to death". They play Sea-fight! Major Treassure Found! Ghost-ship Sighted!
But there's a limit to imagination and I'll show you what it is:
The picture below is out of one of my children's books. It's one of these "search and count books" pretty popular with most kids and this is even better because of Pirates!
Everything is better with Pirates, even Ninjas.
Let's see, what can you spot?
Can you see the sea-serpent?
Can you find Aladin?
Can you see dwarves?
Can you see ghosts?
Can you find the lightbulb?
Can you find Matti, the little boy with a wooden sword who's the protagonist of the book?
Can you spot a woman?
Let me guess, you got the first 6 alright because they are actually there. A woman? Tssss, this is Pirates! There are actually women in the book, a total 8 of them.
A mother with her son
A mermaid chatting with a sailor
A barmaid
A damsel in distress
Four prostitutes
Well, I'm pretty sure that children don't notice that those are prostitutes, but they are definetly depicted as "women who make men happy".
But that's the places reduced for women:
Mothers, barmaids, fantasy creatures and pleasure-givers to men.  That's what our children, sons and daughters alike learn about the world: It's much more likely that there be sea-serpents than women making their place in the world.
And that's neither a bad book, nor a single example. I swear there were more known (not to mention the unknown) female pirates in the actual history of piracy than there are in all the children's books and toy-sets combined.

Montag, 16. April 2012

Cinderella ate my Gender Delusions - a double book review

When I was pregnant with our second daughter, I expected many things, first of all, lots more of pink (it's incredible how much pink stuff turned up after the birth of #1, and that was with all close friends and family being well aware of how much I loathe it. But everybody else obviously  thought a pink cute onesie would be such an original present for a baby girl).
The one thing I was not prepared for was pity.
In Germany.
In Twothousandandnine.
Because I was expecting a second girl.
"Oh, but  #3 will sure be a boy"
"Ah, we need them too."
"Ehm, congratulations!"
What the fuck were those people thinking?
Let me make it clear, they were not trying to insult or hurt me. None of them was a devout muslim or christian, No ultra-orthodox jew who thanks god for not having him made a woman.
Just ordinary, not very religious in a happy go lucky way people, quite some of them women.
That wasn't the start of my renewed feminist interests, nor was it the end. It was a snapshot, one of a million.
And on my journeys through debates and debacles two books were recommended to me: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and Cinderella Ate my Daughter by Peggy Orenstein.
First of all, both books are well-written and entertaining to read. They both made me laugh out loud, although it was sometimes one of those bitter laughs you give off when somebody relates a gruesome tale in a funny way.
But it is pretty obvious that one of them is written by a scientist (Cordelia Fine) and the other one by a journalist (Peggy Orenstein), so if you have read neither of them and want to read both of them (and I really recommend both of them, especially if you have a little daughter or granddaughter), I suggest going from Fine to Orenstein, because the knowledge of the scientific background will add much more to Orenstein's vivisection of  the girlie-girl culture than the other way round.
So let me start that way, too:

If you're anyway like me, your copy of Delusions of Gender will become littered with post-its. There's the Ha! I knew it (or at least expected it)- notes, there's the Holy shit, that's even worse than I thought -notes, there's the The next idiot to make that argument will get a thrashing with added bibliography -notes. It really isn't only an educating and entertaining book for one's own enjoyment, it's a weapon. There's somebody with the scientific background who did the work for you AND properly sourced her work. Just what you wanted for christmas for being such a man-hating evil feminazi.
What I really liked was how she didn't only present the science, but also the pitfalls of science. There's probably no other area of science where ideology and biases infiltrate the scientific process as much as the area of sex- and gender-studies. She embeds the current scientific discussions in the centuries of Science proving that women just aren't really people or at least not rational ones.
How come that in this one area scientists often go looking for confirmation of a cultural bias and then take any results they get as evidence without actually showing not only that A exists, but also that it leads to B?
Why are they so eager to put all those actual differences they find down to nature as if their subjects were grown in a sterile lab until the very moment they engaged in that particular study?
Well, Cordelia Fine can't answer those questions either (except with, it's patriarchy, duh, remember, that confirmation bias thingy), but it's good to keep an eye on them.
It helps to understand why all that "sciency" stuff  bothered you when you first read and heard about it (like, why on earth men can't seem to find the milk in the fridge. It's because of mamoths, duh*), not so much because of the conclusions (woman, just get off your ass, get over to that fridge and get that milk, the poor guy is genetically hardwired not to see anything smaller than at least a big deer), but because the argument made no sense. I would have thought that a successfull hunter needed skills like being able to spot and read traces on the ground and remember where he put the fucking spear. Let alone to communicate with his fellow hunters about the best strategy.
So, if you need ammunition, this book is for you. After this, you cannot only point out that this scientism is wrong (no, it's not because the conclusions disagree with our "feminist dogma"), but you can also provide a handy reference as to why that is (because their science is crap).
Cordelia Fine demonstrates brilliantly why affirmative action is still needed because especially people who think themselves to be "unbiased" and "rational" will still base their decisions on those very biases they deny having and then rationalize their biased decisions with seemingly sensible arguments.
But I'm not going to spoil your fun reading anymore. Go get it!

Now to Peggy Orenstein (I'm German, that name is hilarious!). Her book is a very different book, not so much about the science, but about the culture. Not about the whole of women's lives, but about that slice of childhood and adolescence. And it's written not by a scientist, but by a journalist and, of all things, the mother of a little girl. Her writings convey the anger, worries, desperation and helplessness of a mother who, just like me, saw her daughter washed away in a wave of pink princess glitter.
The one feeling I got while reading her book (apart from being thankfull that things are still less extreme here in Europe) was that Cordelia Fine's science somewhat was the easy part, while the parenting is hard.
She deals honestly with the conflicts of a mother who wants to raise her daughter a strong, brave, daring woman, who disapproves of the pink princess-bullshit but who also has to walk the fine line not to disapprove of her daughter as a girl.
Those conflicts aren't easy. How do you teach her that those Disney Princesses are crap and that, you know, those fancy geometrical magnets the boys in kindergarten always play with are actually cool without falling into the old misogynistic trap of painting girl things as inferior and boy things as superior (those magnets ARE cool! I wished I'd had a box of these as a kid)? And on top of all of that, how will that affect your daughter socially if you manage in preserving all the colours of the rainbow instead of limiting it to pink?
I like how she tied it all back to mostly toy manufacturers, Disney and such, how they created that pink princess market that constantly drives a wedge betweens our boys and girls, not out of malice or bad patriarchal inclinations, but just out of the general laws of the greedy, all-devouring market.
It helps remembering Cordelia Fine's chapters about how easily children are manipulated into thinking a toy is for boys/girls (hint, paint it pink/blue), how easily they can be influenced to try out more options and it is incredible how little it is done, falling back on the naturalistic fallacy of Boys/girls are different.
What I found quite enlightening was the fact that up to a certain age children actually think that gender is determined by what you wear/do. It made me wondering if that was partly due to the body-hate we instill into our children from birth on. Sure, first they are wrapped into their diapers, but I remember kids up to school-age running around naked in summer. They don't do anymore, swimming-pools prescribe at least pants. Dolls don't have genitalia and I know that my husband was asked if he was wearing swimming trunks when he takes a bath with the kids.**
So, yes, it makes total sense that children are confused about what makes you male/female apart from haircut and colour codes. It makes sense that they guard the boundaries closely. If we think about how deeply the sense of one's gender is ingrained into us, it must be frightening to believe that you could lose it by accidentially wearing the wrong shirt.
Another part that struck me was that about children and make-up. I mean, sure I would never sign the kids up for a toddler pageant, would I? Or give them lipstick while in kindergarten, right?
Only, thinking about it, the amount of beauty-products they own is frightening. Kiddie soap, bathtub-colour, sparkling purple princess-shampoo, sparkling purple princess spray-on conditioner (disclaimer: that stuff's great, I use it myself), extra-soft kiddie facial cream (OK, I use that, too) and the pink cherry lip-balm (the only way I could get her to use some in winter on cracked, bleeding lips). See, I have good explenations why they have them. And so does the mother who adds a whole cosmetics store for a beauty pageant.
Peggy Orenstein doesn't have the perfect answer. Where draw the line? Was the pink lip-balm too much, setting her onto the path of objectification, making her think that how she looks, her performance are more important than how she feels and what she does?
But she raises your conscience. I'll think twice before buying any "kiddie-cosmetics" again.
She makes you think again. The only advice she can offer is to talk to your daughter, to talk about girls and women in media, about what exactly you dislike about those princesses***. There's a multi-billion dollar industry out there trying to teach your daughter some things, you're absolutely allowed to do so, too.
Having said all this, there's one thing I missed about her book and that was more a matter of style than content. I often had the impression that I was indeed reading a series of newspaper articles. Her red thread, the fact that all those things set out our girls early for a path of self-objectification, alienating them form their own feelings, bodies and sensations, is sometimes getting lost. She wraps it up from time to time, but in between she lost me reading highly entertaining passages about Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.
So, to sum it up, if you have a (grand)daughter or two especially in the toddler/tween age, go read her book. If you don't, it's still good read. If it doesn't do anything else, at least it will take away your feeling of being the only person on planet earth who hates Cinderella.
My own path? We try to be break up those gender-roles in our own life, although circumstances limit this somewhat. It's become paramount for Mr. to wear yellow, orange, purple T-shirts, the tool box is mummy's toy box and it's important to keep those up when the other one is around. My habit to get into the passenger's seat when Mr. is also at home out of laziness (isn't it nice that he can do the driving sometimes, I have to do it all week so, shared responsibilities it's his job now) made the little one believe that I was only allowed to drive the car when he wasn't around. Which wasn't what was going on in our minds, but in that of our daughter.
More driving for me then.

P.S. What did I write about this morning? make-up for children? This afternoon they were given sparkly lipgloss. For a 2yo. Seriously. 

*Yes, that's Why men don't listen and women can't read maps.
The very bok that also told me that I am probably lesbian and my husband is gay. At least the ratio of people doing men vs people doing women in our relationship didn't change, so we decided to just stick with each other.
**No, he doesn't. It is one of our principles that there's nothing shamefull about the human body. I want them to know how men and women look, I want them to be comfortable with their bodies and bodies in general and I really, really don't want shame to stop them from telling me if one they the horrible thing of sexual assault should happen to them.
*** Not that easy either, as she notices. How do you explain your preschooler that you think that a doll is inappropriate for her age because she's way too sexualized to be some kind of model for her without explaining "sexualized" in the first place?