Author Archives: mwattenbarger

Big Question: For What Are We Responsible?

In the essay “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women,” bell hooks confronts the problem of disjunction within feminist movements. She discusses how mainstream feminism has alienated women of color because of a perception that aspects of their culture are counter to feminist causes–for instance, that black women’s refusal to self-victimize excluded them from feminism. Different groups face different oppressions; yet, hooks points out, mainstream feminism struggles to realize that feminism looks different for different groups.

Last week, Politico Magazine published an article subtitled “How Michelle Obama became a feminist’s nightmare.” The author charged the First Lady with anti-feminist offenses including “gardening,” “tending to wounded soldiers” and “reading to children.” Michelle Obama, the author argued, should be a politically involved activist, not a “mom-in-chief.” She has an obligation to the women of America; she should represent all that feminism has achieved.

But to what extent is one woman obligated to act on behalf of a nation? Is Michelle Obama single-handedly responsible for defying all norms? The demand for a woman to embody a specified role, without room for choice in what she can accept or reject, is constricting and regressive. As bell hooks argues in “Sisterhood,” feminism must account for the complexity of individual experiences. Michelle Obama’s feminism may not be Hillary Clinton’s feminism, but their experiences are equally valid.

With that in mind, are we responsible for making choices with an eye towards what will most benefit women as a population? Or are we free to pick and choose which paths to follow? How much must we consider our individual choices in the context of society?

Cited:

hooks, bell. “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women.” No. 23, Socialist-Feminism: Out of the Blue (Summer, 1986), pp. 125-138.

Cottle, Michelle. “Leaning Out.” Politico Magazine, November 21, 2013. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/11/leaning-out-michelle-obama-100244.html?ml=m_a3_1

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Spark Post: The Selfie

Lately, the feminist blogosphere has grown consumed with the concept of the selfie. Theories abound for its impact on self-esteem, body image and celebrity culture, among other things. At the crux of the discussion lies the question of its merit: are selfies good or bad for women?

On the one hand, they allow girls to assert their existence, claiming their right to “speak” by generating media and proliferating their presence.

On the other hand, the basis of that assertion is their appearances: they’re channeling society’s gaze, reaffirming the idea, as discussed by John Berger, that women exist to be looked at. Yet there still seems to be some subversive agency in women’s ability to control their images through selfies.

Does women’s agency in taking selfies claim a new territory for women? Or does it represent another iteration of the male gaze, as women internalize the societal imperative to value, above all else, their being-looked-at-ness? Can we designate the as selfie definitively detrimental or progressive for women?

Cited: Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” From Jones, Amelia, “The Feminism & Visual Culture Reader,” New York: Routledge, 2003

Ad Critique: I’m Beautiful the Way I Am

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I was impressed to learn of a new ad campaign that New York City is running directed at young girls. Meant to tackle issues of self-esteem and body image, the posters depict girls of many different races, ages and sizes, engaged in a variety of activities. They’re accompanied by variants on the slogan, “I’m a girl. I’m smart, a leader, adventurous, friendly, funny. I’m beautiful the way I am.”

The diversity of representation in the ads is clearly unusual; the depiction of . The girls are portrayed as dynamic, multivalent individuals. In contrast to many representations of little girls in advertisements, these girls aren’t hyperfeminized; they aren’t wearing tutus and playing house. These girls, in short, can grow up to be anything. The ads’ text refers to the girls’ many attributes. They aren’t exclusively valued for their appearances, an issue John Berger discusses in “Ways of Seeing:” women are typically regarded as exclusively ornamental, not instrumental. In this campaign, their intangible qualities and abilities are emphasized.

Or so it seems. In each ad, the dominant sentence–in a large font, below the rest of the slogan–is “I’m beautiful the way I am.” This is meant, of course, to refer both to “inner beauty” and to the affirmation of beauty across various body types and races. But should this be the takeaway? Is it enough to expand the definition of beauty, if only to continue insisting that women embody it? This campaign does well to broaden how “beauty” is construed, but it still shouldn’t be a determining factor in how we affirm girls’ worth. Girls should be affirmed as smart, as leaders, as adventurous, friendly and funny. They should be reminded that their worth doesn’t depend on how beautiful they are. They should be reminded that they don’t exist to be looked at.

Works Cited: Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” From Jones, Amelia, ed. “The Feminist & Visual Culture Reader.” New York, Routledge: 2003.

Ad Critique: What have you got to lose?

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I encountered this poster on a SEPTA bus last week: a painfully transparent effort to cater to our society’s obsession with dieting, this ad cites weight loss as a reason to buy Sleepy’s mattresses. It forms a tenuous progression between inadequate mattresses, trouble sleeping, nighttime eating and weight gain, casting each step in a disapproving light. It operates on the assumption that everyone aspires to a slender body; it stigmatizes desire and impulse by locating it in a chain of inevitability, where the person in question has no control over their choice to eat.

This ad’s approach to dieting captures what Susan Bordo calls the “moral and … economic coding of the fat/slender body”(Bordo, 191). Sleepy’s motto, “making the world a better place to sleep,” alludes to moral categories. It suggests that if you don’t shop at Sleepy’s, you’re making the world a worse place, and you also probably have a muffin top–which is, of course, the worst thing of all. Because the value of the slender body is so firmly enforced throughout society, this ad doesn’t even need to explicitly cite it; the allusion to a muffin top and nighttime eating is loaded enough to tie the ad’s moral system to that of desire.

Bordo, Susan.  “Unbearable Weight.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Ad Critique: Girls Poop (But They Shouldn’t!)

This commercial provides an example of the social reinforcement of the institution of femininity. The narrator, a well-coiffed, feminine young woman in a 1940s-inspired party dress, promotes a product that conceals, as she describes it, “the subtle scent of a 300-cow dairy farm,” a clearly non-feminine phenomenon. She spends much of the commercial graphically and enthusiastically describing her own bowel movements–again, seemingly subverting a feminine gender norm. But while acknowledging, with great gusto, that girls do poop, the narrator repeatedly reminds us that they should pretend that they don’t: “how do you make the world believe … that you never poop at all?” By saying this, she suggests that women must adhere to feminine gender norms, despite how clearly those expectations are socially constructed.

Lorber, Judith. “The Social Construction of Gender.”

Big Question: How does biological sex function in society?

We’ve studied and settled on the idea of gender as a cultural construct, within whose system society forces us to choose an identity of male or female. The role that biological sex plays in social roles is less clear. As it’s usually tied to gender, sex identity seems fairly straightforward–perhaps not as an identity at all, but a fact.

Even cases of intersex persons being forced to choose a sex seems to be tied to gender. The confusion of sex identity plays a role, but for the most part, sex as a category seems to be considered most as it pertains to gender–i.e., if the child doesn’t know their sex, how can they know what gender to perform?

The biology of sex comes up particularly, however, in “gender testing” in sports. (A side note: should it be called “sex testing” because it pertains to physical characteristics?). That testing testing is meant to measure physical advantage based primarily on testosterone levels; because of the potential of physical advantage, in sports, sex is an important category. Physical attributes dictate how the world of athletics work. In a hypothetical gender-neutral society, individuals with more testosterone would still excel at sports, regardless of gender identity. I’m interested in this because it suggests an area where cultural facts could be based almost entirely on physical, natural characteristics.

Do you agree? Are there other categories in society where having a normative sex identity–having more or less testosterone, for instance–plays a significant role, apart from its ties to gender? At least off the top of my head, I can’t think of other situations in which biological sex, not gender, manifests itself culturally. That is, in sports, the actual physical qualities of sex seem more relevant a category than elsewhere. What do you think?