You know how I feel about asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. So of course I cringed when I was catching up on the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine and saw a new Volkswagen ad with just that as the premise.
The plot is this: Young man and his girlfriend’s dad are on an 11-hour car trip. Young man keeps trying to ask for her hand (“There’s something I have to ask you.”) and father keeps distracting him, shushing him, making the conversation about his swell new car. At one point, dad even accelerates in an attempt to, I dunno, outrun the guy in the passenger seat?
And nowhere in the commercial is the woman, or any woman, for that matter. This commercial is on the one hand about selling cars (which like, what do marriage proposals have to do with torque or fuel efficiency?), but it’s also about selling the centuries-old idea that women are property to be handed from father to husband.
It’s just another commercial that reinforces the idea of women as tangential to men, existing only as wives or daughters, and not even of their own choosing. I’m sick of this kind of media, Dad, just as I’m sick of these gender roles we can’t seem to shake. I, for one, am not buying it.
I have a confession to make: I love R&B. Like, LOVE. Something about the relaxed beats, the men’s soulful voices, the incredible high notes they can hit… Right now, R&B is my jam.
Mostly I’ve been listening Frank Ocean radio on Pandora, which hits me with a perfect mix of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and other mellow, sexy songs. One song in particular has got my attention, and that’s Usher’s “Trading Places.”
On its face, the song is a simple reversal of gender roles for sexual reasons. The chorus says, “You get on top, tonight I’m on the bottom, cause we trading places.”
But the verses delve more into the gender roles of the day-to-day lives of heterosexual couples. Usher makes his partner breakfast in bed, cleans up after her, does the laundry, and she puts the moves on him sexually, as well as takes him shopping and buys him what he wants.
What I like about this song, even though on its surface it reinforces stereotypical gender roles, Dad, is that it raises the question of why we need to adhere to them. Usher is obviously happy at the thought of his partner buying him things, and he takes pleasure from pressing her shirts. In an egalitarian relationship, partners do what they can and what they enjoy for the partnership, and these actions don’t have to be rooted in gender roles.
My hope is that couples who hear this song might have the same realization. “Trading places” can be fun, and more importantly, beneficial to the relationship when we allow ourselves to break free from traditional roles and create our own role in the relationship.
Remember that car trip where we all discussed the phenomenon of vocal fry? You know, when a woman’s voice drops to a sort of growl at the ends of words? Remember how I mentioned an article I’d read that said college women tend to use vocal fry (subconsciously) far more than older women?
That article, and conversation, made me very conscious of my own voice, and how it could communicate traditionally feminine or masculine traits. I was just starting college, and suddenly, I was hearing vocal fry everywhere. Even I was using it. And I also was working as a barista at a cafe, where I learned to speak in a higher, lighter, more girlish tone to put the older male customers at ease and make them welcome.
Over the last five years, I’ve become conscious of how I instinctually change my voice based on situation. When asserting authority or speaking up for myself, my voice drops. When I’m calling people to confirm dinner reservations at the restaurant, my voice is higher, more melodic.
Yesterday, I visited a radio station for an interview (so exciting!). As the host introduced me and then welcomed me, I thanked her before realizing I was in my warm telephone voice. I thought about how much better it would be to speak more deeply about the issue of feminism. As the interview continued, I noticed how my voice fell. (Check it out here. I talk a lot about the blog and our relationship.)
This isn’t to say that one voice is better than another, or that changing voices is manipulative. Many women change their voice without realizing it based on situation. I’m guessing men might too.
I do want to point out, though, that we give more authority to male voices, and so women adapt and adopt traits traditionally thought of as male. Though vocal fry has been written off by an older generation as “annoying,” it signals a career woman to my peers. We have learned that lowering our voices grants us more weight in discussions, asserts our place at the table.
I saw another study about women’s representation in movies and was reminded of our brief conversation on the topic a few months back.
First, some summaries of this study:
- Globally, there are 2.24 males for every female character.
- Only about 30 percent of speaking or named characters are female.
- Only 20.5 percent of filmmakers are female.
- Female characters are more likely to be sexualized, skinny, or wearing sexy clothes. (Almost twice as often as male characters)
- In films for children, female characters are even more likely to be thin than in films targeted at adults.
- Women make up only 23.2 percent of the U.S. workforce in films, but 46.3 percent of the workforce in real life.
- Comments about appearance were directed at women at FIVE TIMES the rate they were directed at men.
In my last post, I talked about how women make up about 17 percent of crowd scenes in movies, as well as about 17 percent of leadership positions in real life. You replied that women are rapidly surpassing men in holding bachelor’s degrees, and that the gender pay gap is nigh but a thing of the past. And that is encouraging (though if you read that story, you’ll realize that the reason women are graduating at higher rates is because they can’t get a lucrative job without a degree, so they’re more willing to take on student debt than men, who have more job opportunities available regardless of education, and student debt is a whole other issue that saddles students of lower socio-economic status and any gender, but I digress).
You also mention negative portrayals of dads in media, and you’re right! This is a shame! The “dad-as-dumb-couch-potato” trope is harmful to men! And it perpetuates stereotypes that are harmful to families and women. These are important media critiques to make, and I should add that the slacker dad plays into the “mother runs the home” trope, keeping Mom in the kitchen and taking care of the kids because that is her purview. The slacker dad trope perpetuates ideas of masculinity as being animalistic and lazy, thus giving men a free pass on participation at home. It’s refreshing and encouraging to see positive portrayals of engaged fathers. It’s one of the reasons “Boy Meets World” is still one of my favorite sitcoms. “How I Met Your Mother” is another sitcom, this one geared at adults, that features passionate, engaged dads. They sometimes make silly goofs, but that doesn’t make them buffoons. They can be funny without being stupid, and I appreciate that.
But on the topic of women surpassing men in the job market, even the articles you point me to say that that hasn’t yet happened. Certainly, the gap is closing, but we’re nowhere near equality. On John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” segment on the pay gap, one pundit points out that unmarried, childless women between the age of 35 and 43 make 108 cents to a man’s dollar. Which is like, great if you don’t want to have kids or get married or ever turn 44. But we shouldn’t be restricting women’s options in the name of fairness!
The full, thorough, hilarious segment here:
And, as the fabulous documentary “Miss Representation” points out (I really liked that movie, okay?), an interesting thing happened when women first started to make forays into the job market: Media representations of women became far more toxic. In fact, as women continue to make headway, our counterparts on television become weaker and more sexualized, perpetuating harmful stereotypes. This is a way of making equality harder to achieve.
Just because we’ve made progress doesn’t mean we don’t have more to get done. And the latest study on representation in media shows that there is still so much to do.
Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.—Jay-Z, “Heart of the City”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a woman a woman. You and Mom have both talked with me about the innate differences between men and women, differences that make the genders special. Mom’s even asked me to dive into those differences here and explore positive variance between genders. But then I got to thinking, what are those differences, exactly?
The first “female traits” that come to mind are negative stereotypes, like the one Jay-Z names above. I think of cliches that made me want to shy away from being female as a child: cattiness, vanity, squeamishness and a fear of spiders. These traits are weak, and uncool, and traditionally thought of as feminine, so I told myself I was “not like other girls” and gallantly picked up the spiders on my own and put them outside, disavowed fashion and makeup, and avoided most female friendships.
You might be saying, “Those aren’t the female traits I’m thinking of!” Certainly, when you and Mom talk about differences between genders, the woman is the nurturer, the man the problem-solver. But these roles are neither consistent nor guaranteed across genders. Is a woman who is not maternal not then a woman? Or just a failure to her gender?
Even you and Mom don’t fit into these roles! When I was a child, I turned to you for comfort, because I knew if I went to Mom with a problem she’d say, “Well have you tried x, y and z solutions?”
And these same “positive” gender traits feed into the negatives. A man being a protector necessarily needs a weak, squeamish woman to defend, for instance. And, in a world where we’re at the top of the food chain, that strength and protection is often used to guard women against other men, instead of addressing the societal root of the problem and ending gendered sexual violence. Katherine Bushnell and Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew break it down quite nicely in their 1907 (1907!) book “Heathen Slaves and Christian Rulers”:
What charm this word ‘protection,’ and the title ‘Protector’ has held for certain persons, as applied to the male sex! ‘Man, the natural protector of woman.’ Forsooth, to protect her from what? Rattlesnakes, buffalo, lions, wildcats no more overrun the country, and why is this relation of ‘protector’ still claimed? Why, to protect woman from rudeness, and insult and sometimes even worse. But from whence comes that danger of rudeness and insult or worse from which man is to protect woman? From man, of course. Man is, then, woman’s natural protector to protect her from man, her natural protector. He is to set himself the task of defending her from his injury of her, and he is charmed with the avocation.
Kelsey over at Peak City Life has a lot more on this book, if you’re interested.
I suppose what I’m saying is, I learned to like fashion, and I learned to have female friendships, but I also still put the spiders outside for myself. Mom taught me how to approach my problems, and you showed me that a shoulder to cry on can come from anywhere. Ascribing values such as “female” or “male” to certain traits limits the possibilities available to us, and limits us as human beings. It prevents us from becoming full-fledged individuals.
I’m still growing, but I recognize that I don’t have to behave in ways that are necessarily female. I am a fearfully, wonderfully made unique person, and you and Mom helped show me that.
P.S. I realized that I started this post with a rather sad, sexist lyric that upholds gender roles, so let me end it with a song that explores gender roles and their impact on our lives in a more nuanced fashion:
I was really excited when I saw your new post, Feminism 2.0! And I thought you hit on some very important feminist notions of freedom and choice. I couldn’t watch the video because I wasn’t home, but I made time for it this weekend.
And what I felt made a little bubble of rage grow inside me until I felt like one of those anime kids with the cartoon blood vessels. I’m not going to link to it here because that page doesn’t deserve any more hits, but I will pull some quotes from it to summarize why Tammy Bruce’s “feminism for the 21st century” is about destroying a lot of the progress feminists have made, and I’ll even do it with her pillars.
Tammy defines dignity as meaning “that a woman should be able to freely choose her own path in life.” Okay, fair enough. She then goes on to say that while female college students might say they want to be lawyers or doctors, they never say they want to be mothers or wives. OH MY GOD. THIS IS SO BLEEPING WRONG ALREADY. I’m just gonna say, I am guessing I’ve been a female college student more recently than Tammy Bruce and for eff’s sake! There are women in college who talk about desiring a husband, or children, a family, and how they intend to balance home life and work. I even had classes with some wives and mothers, believe it or not.
She goes on to cite the backlash to an opinion piece written by a Princeton grad that urged Princeton women to find a good man in college:
“Any time someone has the temerity to suggest that a woman might want to look for a husband in college… feminists go nuts.”
I read that letter when the story broke, Dad, and it wasn’t saying, “Maybe you’re interested in finding a man,” it was saying, “Ladies, you’re getting so educated and you’re going to be so successful no man will ever feel masculine enough to want you so marry a guy now.” She even said her sons, themselves Princeton students, could easily have any woman they wanted, but women aren’t so lucky when searching for potential mates, so better hop on that quick! As if the only desire in a woman’s life is to get a husband. Please.
She then goes on to say that on the subject of dignity, women shouldn’t aspire to “be like men” sexually, casually drifting from one one-night stand to another. SO SLUT-SHAMEY! This, again, is not the goal of feminism. It is to allow women to safely and comfortably express themselves sexually, whether that is through frequent sex with multiple partners, or monogamously, or not at all! It means that a woman’s worth is not her chastity, purity or virginity, not that she is required to sleep with many people.
Notice the double-standard, too? She never critiques men for the stereotype of their sexual appetite that she takes for fact. It’s fine that men sleep around, but women should be BETTER.
- The word “no.”
Tammy just can’t stop slut-shaming. Though she earlier says a woman’s choices should be respected, here she says that throughout history, some “women said ‘yes’ when they should have said no.” Names like Anna Karenina and Cleopatra flash on the wall. Apparently, women’s power lies in the ability to say no. This has some heavy sexual overtones, and plays into the patriarchal idea that women withhold sex to punish and control men. As if our bodies are our only tools. IT’S EFFING GROSS DAD.
Then she credits hook-up culture and naked pop stars to feminism, and while feminist empowerment has allowed women to a certain extent to feel more comfortable in our bodies, the current trend of objectification of women is actually a backlash to women gaining rights. For more on this, watch Miss Representation, since you like feminist videos so much. It’s a really incredible documentary analyzing women’s representation in the media, its origins and impacts. Plus it’s on Netflix!
She goes on to say that feminists hate men but want to be like them. Which is false on two counts. A) I don’t hate men. B) If wanting some of the same rights as men means wanting to be like them, maybe. But I also embrace my right to wear lipstick and lace and cross stitch and be feminine. It’s about choice, remember, Tammy?
- Men. “That’s right, men.”
Tammy says we shouldn’t forget that men “gave up their monopoly on political power and gave women the right to vote” as if we should be just grateful well gosh gee whiz to have some of the rights that men have. Isn’t it nice that my husband gave up his right to beat me? Isn’t it sweet when a man restrains himself from yelling rude things at me on the street? Isn’t it swell that they gave up some positions in the job market? Aren’t men AWESOME for GIVING US A BASIC VOICE IN OUR OWN COUNTRY’S GOVERNMENT??>??? Oh, and they also invented birth control, washing machines and refrigerators, Tammy says. Probably Tammy would say they invented shoes too, so we don’t have to be barefoot, pregnant, cooking in the kitchen making your GOD. DAMN. SANDWICHES.
In short, Tammy Bruce’s feminism is not in fact an advancement of women’s rights. She wants women to stop trying to “be like men” and go back to being feminine, subservient, chaste and motherly. It’s not feminism at all.