Benched: The Politics of Cojones

(Photo from the Ancient Origins website)

In her 2013 novel/memoir, The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again (La ridícula idea de no volver a verte), rock-star Spanish author Rosa Montero tells of a legend of a 9th-century woman, Juana (Joan), who had passed for years as a monk, made a name for her/himself, and then became pope.  Juana had spent years traveling with another monk, who presumably was the father of the baby to whom Juana would give birth while occupying the highest holy office in the land.  Montero writes (translation mine): “The legend says that she proved herself to be a well-qualified and prudent pope.  But, Juana ended up pregnant, with the aforementioned man of the cloth as father, and, one day, as she traversed the city in a solemn papal procession, Juana went into premature labor and gave birth right there in front of the people of the city.  Imagine the scene: the golden crown, the staff, the silk, the subdued brocade cloth soaked with blood and splattered with lowly bits of placenta.  It is said that the people, enraged and horrified, leapt on top of the woman pope, tied her to the feet of a horse, and dragged and stoned her for several miles before killing her.”

This one story, so powerful in its possibilities, speaks to contemporary gender issues.  There’s the unevolved Catholic Church, welcoming women to leadership neither in the 9th century nor now; there’s the Catholic Church, still relying on the piety of its women parishioners to advance its patriarchal agenda; there’s the brilliant woman having to dress as a man to enact her brilliance; there’s the transvestite/transgender element for the monk couple, who cannot openly express their love and attraction for one another; there’s placenta, exposed to the world in all its silky power; there’s a baby, left alone while its mother is murdered; there’s a mother, who must be shamed, harmed, and killed for her supposed transgression, and there’s the age-old story of a woman being taught her place.  There is a blending of religion and government.  There is reproductive choice and subsequent retribution.  There is justice, in all its patriarchal glory. There is a return to “normalcy,” with the men in charge.

Montero concludes the recounting of the Pope Juana legend with the papal protocol supposedly established after Juana’s murder (translation mine):  The youngest prelate “had to tap the presumptive pope’s genitals under the seat and then call out, ‘Habet!,’ or ‘He’s got them!’  At that point, the cardinals in attendance would answer, ‘Deo Gratias!’, I suppose full of relief and rejoicing that the new Peter was another Pater.”  I know it’s Fathers’ Day season and all here in the United States, but of course it bears mentioning that the Pater-Peter-Father-Pope inherits his rightly place as head of household, decision-maker, public figure, with all freedoms and rights properly accorded to him.  That’s patriarchy—we have confirmed you have balls, and now you shall have everything else.

I want to return to the characterization of the legendary Pope Juana as “well-qualified and prudent.”  When, in 1991, the well-qualified and prudent lawyer Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings regarding the sexual harassment she had experienced while she worked for him, she was maligned and scorned, and eventually ignored. (*See this 5-9-19 opinion piece by Anita Hill in which she again advocates in smart, specific, and determined ways for putting an end to sexual violence.)

In 2011, Thomas’ wife made an imprudent early-morning phone call to encourage Hill to stop her activism, and this year (2019), Hill received other ill-advised calls from Democratic presidential hopeful and current frontrunner Joe Biden, who step by little campaign-advised step, kept trying to take the nation’s temperature to assume as little guilt for his role in the 1991 hearings as possible. Joe is too busy preparing for his “Habet!”moment to understand and acknowledge the role he played in allowing Thomas to occupy the Bench for so long. Note, too, that David Leonhardt in this The New York Times opinion piece (1-13-19), encourages Biden to “Run, Joe, Run,” as he exhorts Biden to run for office because “your populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation” and because “you are not afraid of losing.”

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/us/politics/joe-biden-anita-hill.html)

The anti-reproductive rights Roman Catholic presence on the Bench—Thomas for almost 28 years and now Kavanaugh for too many months—sets the tone for the entire nation, from Alabama to Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and to Ohio.  The religiously motivated and conservatively empowered pater familias confirms the might of the testicles and the decreased body autonomy for those with other parts in play.

Dress Code, A Noun and a Verb

Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri legislatures are making “handmaid” a verb, an action taken upon any and all women, whether or not of reproductive age or inclination.  This action sends the message to us women that our whole selves are just a synecdoche, a decrescendo of body parts, pudenda, or what my son and daughter used to call “particulars.”  Another blog post will explore ways to think of men’s whole selves as just their sperm, but today’s treats the unequal burden of school dress codes on girl students.

Our local county school system has made “dress code” a verb, dress-coding high-school girls left and right for the clothes they choose to wear or have available to wear.  Some girls get dress-coded, and others don’t, even if they’re wearing the same clothes or same exact styles as the ones who do.  Some girls don’t get dress-coded for a specific outfit four weeks in a row, but then do get dress-coded for that same outfit the fifth week.  Some girls attend formal conversations about the dress code held at school.  They are wearing clothes that the dress code prohibits.  The administrators do not dress-code them or make any mention of it.  Most high-school students have a certain set of styles available to them, and those styles also do not conform to dress code.  Many students cannot afford one set of clothes for weekend activities and an entirely different set for the school week.

Also, it’s hot.  We sometimes have ten days in a row of hot, humid weather in February or March, and very often we have this weather in August, September, October, March, April, and May.  Schools have air-conditioning, but it doesn’t always work.  It is just hot. Dress codes that mandate shorts and skirts to “mid-thigh range” are impossible to obey, unless Target, American Eagle, JCPenney, and any other number of stores completely overhaul their inventory.  “Mid-thigh” also points all interested parties’ attention to one region—the mid-thigh.  As a friend recently pointed out, school should point everyone’s attention to one region—the brain.

And the boys?  They’re wearing whatever the hell they want and watching their girl classmates’ bodies get scrutinized, criticized, taxonomized, and harassed by adult teachers and administrators.  These role models teach the students that girls’ bodies define them, thus making the girls objects, non-human, subject to whatever other decisions are to be made for and about them, not by or with them.  Some girls are sent home to change and some are given others’ clothes to change into. Some girls are punished with after-school detention, and some with in-school suspension.  These girls who dare to be themselves are labeled “defiant,” a loaded and gendered term in the context of school rules, hierarchies, and power systems.

This is the path to the Handmaid’s Tale.  If a girl is just her body, then we forget that she has a brain and a skill set and an opinion and her own way of existing in the world.  This objectification creates a shorter path from real, live, full-person girl to just body to state-controlled incubator, as we’re seeing in various states and on way too many courts in the land.

Furthermore, if we can’t even eliminate a binary gender-based boy/girl dress code, how will we teach students to embrace a full range of gender expression, thus creating a welcoming environment for all students who spend the day in the public school environment?

When I was in ninth grade (first year of high school), my mother made me wear a dress or a skirt every day.  I was not a big fan of dresses or skirts, preferring to wear athletic clothing so that I could play pick-up basketball at lunchtime and make a quick change into practice clothes for after-school sports.  My mother had the idea that you should honor the school day by wearing “proper” clothing, and so I wore a dress or skirt most days of ninth grade.  I walked to school, carrying a book bag, instrument, and sports bag, and I climbed over a brick wall at the beginning of my walk to shorten the trek by at least a mile.  Looking back, I can’t imagine my clothing was in a proper state most days by the time I got to school.  In the meantime, this was the early ‘80’s, and my classmates were wearing the standard uniform of blue jeans and black concert t-shirts (winter) or shorts and black concert t-shirts (spring). My attire was decidedly impractical and uncool, but I did what my mother said.

I did what my mother said for one year, and then I didn’t.  Obedience was silly and impractical.  She knew that, too. I was 15 and had my own tastes and personality and hobbies, and I needed to wear the clothing that expressed all of that.  I also had been buying my own clothes since I was 12, and it was time to buy clothes that I wanted to buy.  By that point, my mother got the point.  There was no need for me to stage a rebellion or to outline a case.  It was just time for me to wear the clothing that made sense for the weather and my daily trajectory and activities.

I don’t remember that my school had a dress code, and I don’t remember any of us being scrutinized by teachers or administrators for the clothes we chose to wear.  Admittedly, this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; I just don’t remember our feeling bound by a dress code or, by extrapolation, of enforcement of a dress code.  In other words, we were free to wear what was comfortable, to express ourselves through our clothing (or not to, if that was our preference).  I could be the nerd in the dress for a whole year, and then I could be the tomboy in the gym shorts the next year.  It didn’t matter.

It does not matter whether I like or do not like the fashions young people, and especially school-aged girls, choose to wear.  What matters is that each and every person has fair and equal access to educational opportunities and success, with no undue burden placed on any gender.

When I go to my daughter’s sporting events, a disembodied voice from the press box commands the audience to rise for the National Anthem and for the gentlemen to remove their caps.  I don’t consider myself a gentleman, and so I don’t remove my cap, which I’m wearing to keep the setting sun out of my eyes as the game begins.  I believe this is the only instance in which the boys and men are being asked to obey a dress code element that the girls and women are not—but it’s only due to the gendered assumption that only one gender wears baseball caps.

I believe, too, that women administrators (and maybe teachers) often bear the extra burden of enforcing dress codes because dress codes often make men afraid to have to look at or to be caught looking at adolescent girls’ bodies.  All of it is weirdly sexualizing, creepy, and unnecessary.

This 2016 Forbes Magazine article looks at the history of dress codes, and therefore the history of gender bias through clothing impositions, stating that: “In ancient Sparta, Athens and many other Greek city states from around the 4th century BCE, there was an appointed group of magistrates called the γυναικονόμοι (“controllers of women”).”  You can guess where the rest of the paragraph will take you.   This 2014 NPR piece examines the inconsistent nature of public school dress codes, as well as the pervasive gender bias in the codes themselves.  NPR also links to the National Center for Transgender Equality site as a resource for schools to be more inclusive in their dress codes.  In 2015, the ACLU of Idaho sent out a legal memo, which “notes that gender stereotyping dress standards can violate the U.S. and Idaho constitutions, federal laws including Title IX, and the Idaho Human Rights Act. Requiring boys and girls to dress differently or according to government-imposed gender norms is unlawful gender discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. and State Constitution also prohibit this type of discrimination.”  (See more ACLU dress code information here; see also this interesting and thorough 2015 piece from The Atlantic.)  This 2016 Newsweek article signals the dangers of mandating what women employees must wear or must not wear.

Let’s stop looking mid-thigh and start going full-brain.  In summary, a poem:


Parts is Parts

Women are like Perdue chickens,
born whole, then harvested for our parts,
the breast meat, the drumsticks, the thigh;
no head left, no brain there.

Just parts

parts

parts.

We’re like Perdue chickens,
bred for service,
born
hole.


	

Gender Don’t’s and Do’s

A neighbor recently commented that we should not teach our daughter to do chores, that not knowing how to do chores would help her to do fewer of them in the future.  I have thought about this a lot in terms of day-to-day equity at work and in the home.  After all, chores do have to be done (they do, right?).  My parents assigned chores as evenly as possible to the seven of us, often not along gender lines since there was already such great gender imbalance (two girls and five boys).  This should have taught us all that we were part of a group bigger than ourselves and, therefore, that we had to contribute to ensure the group was taken care of.  I can only speak for myself when I say that I believe this early teaching took root.

Now, though, when I recall the stern speech I delivered a while ago to my daughter (“I want you to be more generous—of your time, labor, material goods, and humor”), I wonder how to strike an equilibrium between teaching her to contribute equitably to group needs and teaching her to give too often or too much.  The same goes for my son, who should probably receive the opposite speech from the one my daughter got.  In a more perfect community or culture or world, our children would simply love themselves and their neighbors and therefore have a built-in sense of labor equity.  Maybe we are working our way in that direction, somewhere, in some way.  You will find this quandary to be threaded through the text below.

Gender mishaps have piled high of late, and so I have compiled a list of do’s and don’t’s.  Some items from the following list can certainly apply to other intersectional points (national origin, race, religion, socioeconomic class, sexual expression, etc.), but I am framing the list through gender. These suggestions appear just to make good sense, but the more I exist in the workplace, the more I wonder what good sense is.

Don’t’s go first, do’s second, so that the post at least appears to end on a positive note.

DON’T:

  • Don’t call a woman Spanish professor “Señora” and a man Spanish professor “Profesor.” While we’re at it, do use the term “professor” (or “doctor,” if you prefer, especially for the science folks, who seem to prefer this title) for all of your professors when you’re addressing them in English.
  • Don’t assume that women co-workers will take care of all the gifts and the cards. If gifts and cards are happening, all department members can figure out how to proceed.
  • Don’t invite a woman to participate on a committee by telling her you need a woman on the committee. Instead, decide what expertise and experience she brings to the group, and ask if she’ll contribute those.
  • Don’t confer with senior women only about the minutiae of the department.
  • When interviewing candidates, don’t have women in the department address only lower-level teaching and men in the department address only research.
  • Don’t leave most or all of the advising to the women. The more women advise, or “nurture,” the less the job is valued, and the more women are doing the undervalued work.
  • Don’t “reply all” to a group of co-workers and write exactly what your woman co-worker just wrote in the previous e-mail.
  • Don’t laugh when a woman negotiates. Don’t ignore women’s negotiations and honor men’s.
  • Don’t tell women job candidates to calm down.
  • Don’t run a meeting, come to consensus, end the meeting, and then visit individual offices to undo the consensus.
  • Don’t reverse departmental decisions. When you reverse departmental decisions, do consider if, by undoing them, you are valuing men’s opinions more than women’s.
  • Don’t touch women co-workers who don’t want to be touched by you. If you assume they do want to be touched by you, you could be wrong.  If you assume they don’t want to be touched by you, you’re on the right path.
  • Don’t assume women are weak. This will bite you on the ass.
  • Don’t overvalue men’s work and undervalue women’s work, especially as value is tied to work performance and remuneration.
  • Don’t tell people what they want to hear and then do something different. Do be honest about how you’re going to proceed, even if people don’t like it.
  • Don’t ignore process.
  • Generally, don’t be an asshole.

DO:

  • Do follow these general process principles.
  • Do plan ahead. This allows for everyone to contribute to the work equally.
  • Do figure out how to share the work. Use a spreadsheet, list the job responsibilities, and fill them equitably.
  • Do think about power and hierarchy. If you have power, why do you have it?  How can you use the power to do the most good for the most people?  If you want power, why do you want it?
  • Do consider representation. How many people of color are in the room when big and small decisions are made?  How many women are in the room?  How many people of color and/or women have the opportunity to speak, vote, and influence the decisions?
  • Do attempt to put aside your own expectations for others’ behaviors and self-expression. If you can’t, then do attempt to be aware of your own biases.
  • Do be honest—with yourself and others.

These two lists should just serve as a mini-refresher.  Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace treats all of these suggestions in more theoretical and more expanded practical ways.

The Peter Principle

(I can’t find a pertinent image for this week’s post.  Here is our sleeping puppy.)

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” wrote Dr. Laurence Peter in 1969, the year his “Peter Principle” went viral, 1969-style.  This recent piece from Forbes supplies information from an academic study, published 50 years after the initial assertions by Dr. Peter, which finds the basic premise of Peter’s statement to be true.  Summarizing the results of the study (run by Professors Benson, Li, and Shue), the Forbes author writes, “The data show that the best salespeople were more likely to a) be promoted and b) perform poorly as managers.  The Peter Principle is real.”

After just a little poking around the internet, I have found very little information about how the Peter Principle functions for people of color and women.  Tom Schuller has a book titled The Paula Principle, but the five points outlined on his website do not reassure me that the gender work on this issue is thorough or free from its own kind of bias.  Is Dr. Peter’s 1968 assertion principally about white men?  If so, we need to think more about how white men benefit from the assumption that they should be promoted, how people of color and women are placed at a disadvantage through this assumption, as they are not automatically promoted, and, perhaps most invisibly, how people of color and white men and women prop up the men who have been promoted to a position whose responsibilities they cannot handle.

In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I treat the issue of looks-like-me hiring and promotion.  A colleague once said that he wanted to make a particular hire because the candidate looked like the professors he had had in graduate school.  The more that white men believe in their own competence and privilege, the more they instill this value in colleagues—making the hire or promotion of someone like them seem “natural” or “right.”  Sometimes the person hired or promoted is entirely competent and wonderful at his job, and sometimes he’s not.  Nevertheless, the increasingly ingrained assumption that he will be contributes to gender, race, and gender-race pay gaps, which we know to be significant (cited in many posts in the Gender Shrapnel Blog; for example, here; see also this link from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research).  The assumption also contributes to the promotion problems of the glass ceiling (for white women) and the cement wall (Buzzanell and Lucas’ term for the lack of promotion of people, and especially women, of color).

In this poignant op-ed in the 1-11-18 issue of The New York Times, Charles Blow says of our “president”:  “Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.”  Indeed, we have elected a man to the highest post in the land, a post for which he had already demonstrated a lack of interest and a severe lack of preparation and for which, since the election, he has revealed previously unimaginable inability and dysfunction.  As Charles Blow signals, “Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the ‘lowest white man,’ he is still better than Barack Obama, the ‘best colored man.’”

Indeed, even attempting to put politics aside and to focus on presidential job descriptions, much of the United States population must understand that oratory—having ideas and being able to transmit them orally in a compelling and inspiring manner—is a fundamental job requirement for the presidency. President Obama demonstrated time and again consummate oratorical skill (gained, perhaps, through profound thought, significant practice, and natural talent).  On the other hand, Trump’s communications reveal his lack of skill in this area and, I would submit, this oratorical incompetence lands our nation in significant and frequent problems.

Trump’s Peter Principle-style incompetence unfolds exponentially, as he hires men with a similar profile who are similarly unprepared to do the jobs for which they are hired and promoted. In addition, large cadres of individuals follow behind the so-called president, spending their valuable labor hours cleaning up small and large messes occasioned by colossal incompetence. The level of mismanagement boggles the mind and cements the idea of Peter Principle privilege.

This article from The New York Times (3-16-2018) reminds us that women and men already imagine men when they picture leaders, thus contributing to the power of the Peter Principle (i.e. fomenting the “natural” notion that men, especially white men, deserve to be promoted).  Our compass north is men in charge.  Even when we make workplace changes to open the pipeline, hire and promote people of color and white women, we always creep back to that compass north.  Changing perceived and real status quo remains a gigantic challenge.

The April, 2018, issue of The Atlantic features Peter Beinart’s piece titled “The Nancy Pelosi Problem.”  Beinart outlines Pelosi’s numerous successes as House Minority Leader and applauds her speaking, legislative, and fundraising abilities.  He also points out that the GOP used Pelosi’s image as a target, emphasizing time and again that women are not supposed to be in positions of power: “In the run-up to the 2012 elections, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Republicans invoked Pelosi in television ads seven times as often as they invoked the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid. Four years after that, in the run-up to 2016, they invoked her three times as often.”  Beinart asks and answers many questions about Pelosi’s supreme competence and the myriad ways the image of her and her competence are undermined: “Why so much discontent with a woman who has proved so good at her job? Maybe because many Democrats think Pelosi’s unpopularity undermines their chances of winning back the House. Why is she so unpopular? Because powerful women politicians usually are. Therein lies the tragedy. Nancy Pelosi does her job about as well as anyone could. But because she’s a woman, she may not be doing it well enough.”

I’ve written before about workplace “clean-up”—the often invisible ways in which lesser-paid employees (often people of color and women, as statistics repeatedly bear out) do the work of the greater-paid employees (often white men, as statistics repeatedly bear out) and make them appear more competent.  These tasks range from managing people and work responsibilities to writing speeches to running meetings.  Even as the Virginia Department of Education unveils its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” with an emphasis on job readiness, it continues to hire and promote superintendents, assistant superintendents, and middle- and high-school principals who in this part of the state are often white men, some of whom (not all!) lack real training to manage people, deliver speeches, run meetings, demand reasonable budgets, and generally do the work for which they were hired.  The more we subscribe to the Peter Principle, the more we inculcate in our young people the supposed naturalness of promoting white men and render invisible the work of people of color and white women.

Soccer great Abby Wambach touched upon many of these issues in her powerful and inspiring 2018 commencement speech at Barnard College.  We can all learn something from Wambach’s words and her real, practical advice for greater workplace fairness.

Funny Women

Old joke: Question: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That is not funny.

It turns out: Feminists are damned funny.  This includes Michelle Wolf.

Confession: For about five years now, I have wanted to learn how to write, launch, and perform a stand-up routine.  That’s why I’m fascinated with the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Rachel Brosnahan.  In the show, 1960s upper-crust housewife and mother Midge Maisel learns to fashion “the tight ten,” the perfectly pitched ten-minute routine of the stand-up comic.  I am not hilarious, but I am sometimes pretty good at recognizing and recounting unusual stories, which might work towards a tight 45 seconds.  Gender-bending situations, misunderstandings between and among languages, and mishaps of menstruation, maternity, and menopause would have to be developed to get the other nine minutes and 15 seconds.  I would want to undo some of the work of the Andrew Dice Clays of the world and celebrate the hilarity of more contemporary comedians, who are accomplished and much less overtly misogynistic, if not outright feminist. Who knows, a girl can dream, right?

Full disclosure: I think it would be funny for a 52-year-old woman to start with, “So, I went to the dentist and the gynecologist today.  Only two cavities.”  I can hear your groans from wherever you’re reading this, but wouldn’t the shock of a large-bosomed 52-year-old woman saying this make it even funnier?  Okay.  A large-bosomed woman can dream.  Isn’t it funny to use the term “large-bosomed” more than once?  Not a single person I know—not even the kindest and most loyal among them—thinks this dream of mine is a good idea, so that should probably tell me something.

For these reasons and more, I have been following with keen interest the kerfuffle surrounding Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD).  I didn’t know of Michelle Wolf before this occasion, but I sure do now, and I would bet many people could say the same.  She is really funny.  Her irony and deadpan delivery slay.  She is a comedian, and so she is supposed to be funny, edgy, surprising.  The WHCD allowed her to display all of these talents, which she has developed over the past few years through improv classes, writing for and performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, doing her own HBO Comedy special, and now having a regular comedy show on Netflix.

If you didn’t catch the full routine or haven’t seen snippets of it, where the hell have you been?  Just kidding.  You can check out Wolf’s own website, which offers the night’s highlights by category: Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Ivanka Trump; Donald Trump; Democrats; the media.  The website also emphasizes the ultra-serious conclusion of Wolf’s routine, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”  In this piece from Cosmo (4/30/18), Jill Filipovic astutely examines the White House’s hypocritical response to Wolf’s remarks in the context of the WH hostility towards the press/media and the increased danger for the press corps during Trump’s time in the presidency.  Filipovic writes, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water. That line was in the same speech as the one that mentioned eye shadow and Aunt Lydia. Only one of those things is truly offensive, and it didn’t seem to register on the list of outrages felt by members of the White House Press Corps. There are wives and mothers in Flint, too – if Michelle Wolf talks about their eye makeup, will we finally care about them?  Reporters should make the powerful very uncomfortable. Their obligation is to reveal the unvarnished truth, no matter how awkward the facts are or ill-mannered one seems for delivering them.  Luckily, someone at the White House Correspondents Dinner did that. It just wasn’t any of the journalists.” The beauty magazines definitely understand fashion, and it’s clear that, in the age of Trump, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan see feminist protest and humor as appropriately fashionable.  (I won’t get into the multiple hypocrisies of this in today’s piece.  I’m busy trying to figure out eyeshadow names, like “Smoky Ash” and “Large Bosom Gray.”)

Comedian Elayne Boosler also rises to Wolf’s (unnecessary) defense in this Time Magazine piece (5/1/18).  Boosler has it right: comedians are to be judged on the quality of their humor.  I would list intelligence, surprise, bite, and social commentary as key elements to be critiqued.  Boosler says, “Outrage is how you know you did well.”  This Washington Post piece (4/29/18) also claims that “Michelle Wolf got it just right.”  Indeed, she did, and I love that each negative comment about Wolf makes this talented comedian more certain that her performance achieved exactly what she wanted.

In this interview (5/1/18) with NPR’s Terry Gross, Wolf says, “I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think “Oh, she’ll be nice,” and if you’ve seen any of my comedy you know that I don’t — I’m not. I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things. And I don’t think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves and I don’t fit in that box.” Indeed, Wolf’s high-profile performance allows her to remove the box, occupy a physical and metaphorical space most frequently inhabited by male comedians, give voice to funny women, and remind us of severe social ills.  Those who want her to play nice have to undo their own biases, as Wolf seems to take on the cloak of irresponsibility so celebrated in the context of men comedians and so little appreciated among funny women.  Of course, age-old tropes tell us that “public women” are to be feared, silenced, and placed back into the box.  Wolf’s principal transgression seems to be her refusal to comply with these antiquated expectations.

Question: How many feminists does it take to turn on the lights?  Answer:  All of us.

Guns

The United States loves its guns.  The country loves its guns so much that it is willing to sacrifice seven children and teens on an average day, 96 United States citizens a day, and 13,000 lives a year. (*See this Everytown site for more statistics, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  See this 2016 article from The New York Times.  See also this site for up-to-the-minute reporting on gun deaths in the U.S.).  The data tell us, too, that 50 women a month are shot to death by intimate partners and that black men are 13 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white men.

Is gun violence a disease?  Which other organizations are tasked with stemming the tide of violent crime, and especially violent crime committed in our schools?  Why do we now think it is normal or acceptable for our children and their school teachers and staff to experience violence in schools and to have to prepare themselves for violence through repeated lockdown drills?  What the hell is wrong with us?  Why are we such cannibals? (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, especially Act 5, about the shame of it all.)

None of what I am writing today is news.  We all know it, and we all know it to be true.  We are catering every day to the hypermasculinist NRA lobby, which has infiltrated every level of government and affected the safety and/or sense of safety in every one of our schools.  We know it.

I was going to write this week’s post about gender-based violence on the national and international stages, and I still am.  This is because what is becoming a type of gun genocide in the United States stems from an ever-more-dangerous toxic masculinity fomented through our government representatives, television shows and movies, commercials, and video games.  This inculcation of violence influences mass shootings and supposedly behind-closed-doors incidents of domestic violence.  It tells men to reject all attributes and feelings coded as “feminine” and to embrace ultra-power and dominance.  (*See this 2013 summary of an article about print images in advertisements that promote hyper-masculinity.)  Time Magazine in 2014 reported that 98% of mass murderers are male, attributing the statistics to many phenomena along the age-old gender binary: cultivation of men as hunters and warriors; men’s protection of their status in a group; influence of violent media; etcetera.  It is no accident that we use the metaphor of “guns” for highly developed muscles.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) adds to this toxic mix by encouraging gun sales, discouraging anything that impedes gun sales, and thereby openly motivating gun violence.  I was reluctant to visit the NRA website and give it any more traffic than it already gets, but it behooves us to know what this billion-dollar lobbying organization is up to.  The website informs us that NRA-TV is alive and well, promoting television shows about guns and gun violence.  Trending on its blog right now is the proud announcement that the AR-15 is the most popular gun being sold right now.  Remember that this is the gun purchased and used to kill dozens of people in recent mass shootings in the United States.  The website also lets you know (to me, menacingly) that, “The NRA is closer than you think,” as it provides maps and directions to local stores and shooting ranges.  It features the story of an “armed citizen [who] protects his family,” making me wonder if the armed citizen’s children ever go to school and if they are protected there.  A photograph of two beautiful lions invites “American hunters” to shoot them.  And don’t miss the pitch to young people: “The NRA has been actively involved in promoting the shooting sports to youth since 1903. We wish to ensure the future of the shooting sports by providing proper tools and resources to America’s young people.”  In other words, “we hope to promote gun sales to kids as young as five or six who can accidentally shoot each other.  If they survive that, then they can shoot others when they get a little older.  Don’t miss out!”

I just visited the NRA online store and am feeling more than sick to my stomach.  It’s all about “protecting freedoms,” “not being tread on,” and weapons, weapons, weapons.  What is this war?  It is Wayne Lapierre’s fear of himself, of not being enough.  It is Wayne Lapierre’s followers agreeing that not being enough can be compensated by owning a gun.  It is the United States afraid to confront its own deeply-rooted, ever-growing pornographic affair with its guns.  You don’t have to be a literary critic to understand what the gun compensates for, and you don’t have to dig too deep to worry about how we cater to this.

Guns have no other purpose than to kill.  Let’s remember that.

OpenSecrets.org shares information about NRA contributions to candidates, elected officials, and party committees. (*Here are the statistics from 2016.)  As far as I can tell from the list, all of these candidates, government officials, and political parties are Republican.  Every last one.  This is not at all surprising, but it should allow us to become more draconian in our condemnation of the GOP.  For those of us living in Virginia, let’s remember that Ben Cline, who has declared his intention to run for Bob Goodlatte’s House of Representatives seat for the 6th District, has an A+ rating from the NRA.  Ben declares this proudly on his “pro-life” website.  (*See Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Ben Cline here and here.)  As Voluble blogger Robin Alperstein has said, GOP candidates want to get re-elected and therefore respond to vociferous voters, many of whom promote the gun lobby.  The best way to defeat them is to increase contact with our representatives to encourage smart gun regulations.  Gabby Giffords’ Law Center is an excellent place to get information for this kind of massive effort, so necessary for 2018 midterm elections.

I promised I would talk about gender-based violence, and I already have, in part.  Gun violence is gender-based violence from the start.  Gun violence requires that we understand toxic masculinity and reverse it, just as it requires deep change in public policy surrounding the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. (*See related Gender Shrapnel blog posts here [free speech], here [Charlottesville], and here [stop-and-frisk].)

The GOP’s massive and perverse power has placed our own country at war with itself.  This civil war relates in no small part to our Groping Old President, whose decades-long anti-women actions and comments extend to his support for other violent misogynists who wield great power.  Let us not forget that the White House delayed a full week in condemning multiple reports of Rob Porter’s violent acts against not one, but two, wives.  (*See Dana Milbank’s take-down in The Washington Post of the all-too-conveniently evolving White House stance on domestic violence.)  The Groping Old President (assaulter-in-chief) also “boasts of a great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose most recent recommendation to shut down female rebels was to “shoot them in the vagina.”

State-imposed misogyny and state-indulged gun violence are not news.  None of this is.  We have got to get on this now, yesterday, 30 years ago.

Her/His/Their

@

x

@s

xs

I have just returned from a two-day work trip to the Yucatan, for which I traveled with wonderful colleagues, met generous people, and researched opportunities for students. I teach Spanish and interact frequently with Spanish-speaking people from all over Spain and Latin America.  This trip, nevertheless, reminded me how easy it is to get into protective silos of like-minded individuals and to become accustomed to mostly egalitarian language use.

On this trip, I traveled with a female and a male colleague.  In many settings, I noticed that our male colleague was addressed first by most men.  They would initiate the conversation by calling my colleague “Jefe,” making a few jocular remarks, always kindly intended, and then asking questions of him. If my colleague didn’t hear this or they anticipated that it would be better to continue in English, they would reframe and call him “Boss.”  The first time I heard “Jefe,” I almost answered, simply because I speak Spanish and am the oldest of the group.  I cracked up each time as I had to remind myself that they were not addressing me, that they hadn’t said “Jefa,” and that, besides, silly, women aren’t bosses!  The “jefe”-way to exist in the world is never having to assume you’re not being directly addressed by the vast majority of people on the planet.  Think about it: If you’re in a group and you are the one always addressed first, and the address defers to your power in a hierarchy, you might start to make some significant assumptions about your importance and about your role in conversational movement and negotiation.  The others in your group might also make assumptions about their secondary role in the group.  And each time this happens, the use of “boss” might reinforce for the women that they are to be silent, to speak only when spoken to, to assume a less important role.  In other words, we are conditioned by language use and re-use, in part due to power dynamics and in part due to conduct codes, often based in niceness or politeness (jocularity among the men and the women graciously accepting abnegation).  In this case, niceness translates into deference, deference to the linguistic codes of men speaking with men.  Not one person in any of these situations was purposefully making the women secondary, not one.  But the effect, especially over the long haul, is just that.

Signs welcomed individuals with “Bienvenido” (masculine singular) or “Bienvenidos” (masculine plural), never making the nod to women or to non-binary categories.  I was critical of this in the Yucatan, but then noticed the very same code used upon my return to the U.S. as male travelers (“Bienvenido”) were welcomed one by one to Dulles International Airport.

Brilliant linguist and theorist and Mexican-American Chicana lesbian activist Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands/La Frontera that Chicana women from her community always used the masculine-identified pronouns when they spoke in the plural (nosotros, ellos), even when they were referring to a group of all women.  It wasn’t until Anzaldúa met groups of women from the Caribbean, whom she observed using the feminine endings (nosotras, ellas) in empowering ways, that it occurred to her that she herself could conceive of a specific gender in language and use it as she chose.  She found this discovery to foment more creative ways to think about identity through language, one of the major themes threaded throughout Borderlands/La Frontera.  Anzaldúa writes, “We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse” (54).  Similarly, linguistic codes of inclusion and exclusion continue to reinforce traditional gender roles.

In the English language, people can choose the pronoun that best describes their gender identities.  Our pronoun system has never been highly flexible, thus making the use of “he or she” or “his/her,” and now “they” and “their,” rather clunky.  In fact, I always wonder why “his” still always goes before “her,” even though an alphabetic ordering would have it go the other way.  The same goes for official forms that ask for gender/sex identification.  “Male” always comes before “female,” which seems to indicate a primacy of male, rather than an alphabetic ordering.  This may seem incredibly particular or picky, but, if we’re going to move from a universal he/him to a more inclusive set of pronouns and possessive adjectives, then I am curious about the subsequent linguistic choices we make.  The they/their option works well to allow people not to have to choose between two options and not to have to reinforce a gender binary that certainly has been busted open—quite appropriately—in many ways.  At the same time, the use of they/their for a single person can still cause great confusion simply because language still seems to want or need to distinguish between singular and plural.  Language is both wonderfully fluid and tremendously based on precedent.

My old and mostly male professors in graduate school used only the masculine forms to refer to us graduate students, even with a majority of women in the program.  I don’t think any of us took much notice, and we women just were defined by the –os endings.  In Spanish it used to be that you could have one thousand women and one man in a room and you would use the masculine ending to refer to the group.  We were taught this (in Spanish and French and Italian and Portuguese) from the get-go, and we kept it going because it was a language rule.  I remember a professor who, instead of referring to herself as “profe” (short for “profesora”) used “profa,” and other professors mocked her for this.  I also remember using “pilota” for referring to a woman pilot and being corrected, told to use “mujer piloto,” thus emphasizing that men universally are pilots and that women pilots are the exception.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall saying “hombre enfermera” for a male nurse, but rather “enfermero.”  The universal/exception rule only went so far, which is to say it continued to reinforce masculine domination in language and, by extension, in assumptions about the workplace.

About ten or so years ago, I followed others’ lead in using the “arroba,” or “at” sign, to designate both female and male endings in Spanish.  I especially liked seeing Latin@, with neither the “a” nor the “o” ending coming first, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to say this (“Latina/o,” “Latina/Latino,” “Latino/Latina”?) out loud, but at least any of these possibilities was actually say-able.  At this point, I’m used to interacting with many Spanish speakers who consistently use the –as and the –os endings for each word that includes both genders, and I try to do some of this, both in spoken and written Spanish.  The practice is less unwieldy than I thought it would be, but for me still requires focus and patience.  The newer use of “x” instead of the gender-marked “a” or “o” endings, somewhat parallel to a plural use of they/their in English to refer to a single person, really makes the point that we don’t have to label everyone and everything along gender lines, and I thoroughly appreciate this.  At the same time, the “x” symbol seems to negate, rather than create, and it is way more difficult to interpret its natural pronunciation in Spanish than the “at” sign was/is.  I also see as just too short the transition period in which women were consistently acknowledged in the increased use of the –a and –as endings for mixed groups.

The generations after mine have labored effectively to rupture binaries and to respect how individuals choose to self-identify.  In this dark political world, I take comfort in observing this change, this understanding that we can call people what they want to be called, or not put them in a category or box at all.  When I measure these efforts against the still pervasive “jefe/boss” paradigm, I see a huge gap in cultural practices and in rates of cultural change.  Until we are even more deliberate in our conversational practices, we will continue to have only one gender “bienvenido” in our private and public spaces.