Thursday, August 31, 2006

Time Warp: Forbes and the Right's Attack on Women's Independence

Shit! I knew there was a reason why I’m not married! I went to college and got a job instead of marrying the first guy who would knock me up! I read books, learned new things, and grew into an interesting person with a life of her own, thinking that someone might want to share in it with me someday. Now what am I going to do? I never wanted to go to Europe—I wanted to have five kids and make casseroles every night! Damnit!

By now you’ve probably heard of that infamous Forbes article. You know, the one that told men not to marry a woman with a career because they would wind up dirty, sick, and cuckolded by the selfish, neglectful, and adulterous bitch. The one that is now gone from the web site (though you can read the text of it—complete with editorial comments—here), replaced with a side-by-side “debate.”

In this “debate,” Elizabeth Corcoran actually had to address some of the preposterous “issues” and “facts” used (so badly used, poor things) by Forbes editor Michael Noer to support his contention that marrying an educated woman who works full-time and makes more than $30,000 a year would bring nothing but woe. I guess this presentation was supposed to make Forbes look a little bit more like a publication out of 2006, instead of say, 1956.

I learned about “Don’t Marry Career Women” (what is a man with a career? A “Career Man”?), courtesy of the Weekly Dig’s Media Farm column (August 30, 2006). I don’t read big business rags like Forbes and usually get my news on things economic from NPR’s Marketplace, so I must express my gratitude to the Dig. I was riding home on the train, looking to get my fix of Bostonian culture, music, and swear-strewn reporting (sometimes it’s just the thing), when I read in horror that a secular, presumably respectable, magazine actually published this thing, and that it wasn’t a joke. First thing I did when I was at a computer was check it out, and yep, they were right.

There isn’t any point to taking up the “facts” featured in the “debate” (I’m sorry I can’t leave off the quotes. It’s not a legitimate debate) here. Noer’s “points” are laughable. Basically, the guy’s prescription that men should seek out women willing to take care of them as a full-time occupation because men are unable to take care of themselves is flat out asinine.

To wit: If women have been able overcome millennia of oppression to achieve the right to education (still working on that improving access on that one, Larry Summers), employment (maybe even for equal pay someday), and (at least for now, kind of, if you don’t live in South Dakota) our own bodies, then men can surely learn how to boil water, pick up their underwear, and go to the fucking doctor for checkups.

Relationships between men and women in many places in the world have come a long way from the efficient system of property transfer between the father and the husband they once were (all those “defenders of traditional marriage” don’t seem to talk about bride prices too often). Although there's a ways to go yet, relationships are evolving toward willing partnerships between equal human beings, bonded by love and respect. Since the Forbes article was about male/female marriage, I’ll stick to it, but suffice it to say, there have been considerable gains in what constitutes an acceptable relationship. Things are far from perfect, but at least the ideal is there, right?

Yes, but in the onslaught of a sustained and vicious backlash, the ideal is fading. More than almost anything else, what scares me about the right how successful they’ve been in their campaign to erode the gains made in women’s rights. Despite all of the careful logic and evidence that exposes the baseless grounds on which women’s equality was denied for so long, the right is still managing to erode women's equality by making critical advances in the “battle for hearts and minds."

All this talk about “traditional family values,” regardless of how it is packaged, stems in no small part from fear of women taking control of their own lives. The right fears this because it undermines the privileges that have been reserved for men and makes them, well, equal to women. Equal rights and privileges mean equal responsibilities. This terrifies the right, and they use emotion-charged “values” language to convince people that equality is the death of civilization as we know it, evidence to the contrary be damned.

Often this “family values” language is associated with the religious right (if you want to see some praise for Noer’s position from rightwing Christian women, look here, and be afraid). This language is usually more overt, as the religious right maintains that the husband is over the wife and that independent (un-submissive) women are sinful. It’s easy to dismiss “values” language as strictly a phenomenon of the religious right, but it has made subtle appearances in the secular right for years (I’m dating myself, but I remember the movie Baby Boom).

Recently, the more secular right has been very successful in co-opting the language of “choice” to describe women who stay at home as wives and mothers instead of engaging in the “futile struggle” to “have it all.” Articles in the mainstream media have touted “post-feminist” women who get college degrees before marrying, having children, and “choosing” to spend their lives like June Cleaver, only with a SUV and better hair. The statistics used to support these articles have been contested, but the right doesn’t need to prove its point in order to make it (just look at Noer’s article).

This new language of "choice" resonates enough to be seen as true because the fact is that in too many households in this country, the woman is still expected to bear the primary responsibility of caregiver, chef, chauffer, and maid in the household economy. Supermom or no, these women are only human, and something often has to give. With the exorbitant cost of childcare in this country, not to mention the guilt still heaped upon women who do not stay at home full-time with their children (this makes the whole get-the-welfare-mothers-to-work-at-minimum-wage-jobs stand taken by the right all the more puzzling), I wonder how much of a “choice” these women really have when it comes to family and career.

And that’s it. The right doesn’t want women to have a “choice” at all. While I don’t necessarily believe that the nine-to-five life suits everyone, male or female, I do know that financial independence is key to self-sufficiency. It is women’s self-sufficiency that Noer—and the right—attacks. And if practical tactics like fighting tooth and nail to block measures to ensure equal pay for equal work and affordable childcare don’t do the trick, then things will get dirtier. Michael Noer states the right’s ultimatum clearly: Women, either get out of the workplace and get back home, nice and dependent, where you belong, or you will never have love in your lives.

Written by the editor of Forbes or no, that this ridiculous article even countenanced a “debate” instead of being retracted immediately tells me that the right has made more inroads into eroding women’s gains than I’d feared. These days are surreal, and they are not a little frightening.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


A friend of mine and I were talking about the so-called “war on terror” the other week and how a lot of language used to describe the “enemy” in this “war” covers everyone who practices Islam (rather like saying that everyone from Oklahoma is Timothy McVeigh). He asked me what I thought of the term “Islamo-Fascism” as a way to differentiate between Muslims and groups like the Taliban.

I answered that I thought it was a misnomer, given that fascism is a largely secular ideology wherein the state is closely aligned with the corporation and that what people are trying to describe with the term is a religious fundamentalism (OK, I wasn’t quite that eloquent, but do you really want to read, “Well, see, fascism has a lot to do with corporations, you know, and...”?). Bush and the neocons, I said, probably started using “Islamo-Fascism” to associate the “war on terror” with World War II in an effort to regain support for the illegal war in Iraq.

Well, Katha Pollitt, my favorite Nation columnist, has an excellent and far more erudite assessment of the term in her latest
column. Her critique of the the term as arising more from emotion than analysis is spot on, in my opinion. (If you aren’t a Nation reader, I encourage you to start reading her column---she rocks.) The language we use in talking about the mess we are in right now is critical. The right uses terms like “war on terror” and “Islamo-Fascism” to maintain control (now we could start talking a little bit about fascism) over the political debate in this country. I’m not sure how how we go about changing it, but I think shedding a little light on what the right is doing when it uses terms like "war on terror" and "Islamo-Fascism" is a good way to start.

Weird News

“Hikers lose reality about the cows.” I guess they’ve been hugging them and stuff. This pisses them off, and things get ugly. When I was a kid, I sat and stared at an electric outlet for a really long time trying to imagine what would happen if I stuck my finger in it like my mom told me not to. Being told not to hug a cow does not inspire the same curiosity in me. Cows stink.
Don't hug the cows

Several years ago, a list of things one could do to become an annoying human circulated around the internet. One of my favorites was to jump up and down and scream, “I won! I won!” at the ATM. I’ve done this before, and it works. It annoys people. In Japan , however, one can do this legitimately, for customers can play roulette at ATM machines in Toyko. Strange world we live in.
Bank to woo customers with ATM roulette game

That the Finns came up with a cell-phone throwing contest makes me proud to be of Finnish descent. That they also came up with a wife-carrying contest does not.

Man throws phone 292 feet to win contest

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine and the Little Girl Beauty Pageant I Endured in Texas

Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to, you might not want to read this. I give away the ending—the best part of the whole movie.

Little Miss Sunshine made me laugh. Hard. Nietzsche and Rick James, what more can you ask for? OK, so it wasn’t a perfect film. It could have been better, with more character development to make the hilarity all that much more painful. But for mid-summer fare, would you have rather seen Nacho Libre?

Jack Black can be really funny, but this was just stupid

Although I found the flick to be pretty damn funny in its own right, I had some extra-special context with my popcorn. Entirely against my will, I once endured a little girl beauty pageant in Texas.

Two and a half years ago, I was at a hotel within limits of the airport in Dallas, Texas, for an academic conference. These conferences are usually staid, tweedy affairs, and I attend them because I work for an academic publisher. I mind the book table and tend to our authors (I’m the author relations person), while the acquisitions editor goes to papers and such to try to score the next big book that five people in the world will want to read. The most exciting thing that happens at these things is the little wine-and-cheeser held at some point during the show. Well, the fates had something different in store for us this time.

Groggy from lack of sleep and somewhat ill from a disgusting Denny’s breakfast (I said that we were still within the limits of the Dallas airport---I didn't have much choice), I opened up boxes of books to set them up on the folding tables in the half-ballroom that served as the book exhibit. Representatives from other publishers were doing the same, grumbling about when the coffee was supposed to arrive.

I don’t remember who looked out the door to the ballroom first, but pretty soon, we were all rubbing our eyes and staring out as about a hundred little girls with poofy hair (talk about Texas-sized), makeup worthy of a televangelist’s wife, and costumes bedazlled enough to make Liberace roll over with envy in his grave came charging down the hallway toward our ballroom. The stage parents were not far behind them. Excited chatter and glitter came closer and closer to us. It was worse than Jaws.

What the… Was I still asleep?

Nope. I wasn’t. Turns out that the hotel had rented the other half of the ballroom to a young (toddler up through about thirteen or so) girl’s beauty pageant. For the next nine hours we endured little girls running up and down the hall screaming, their stage mothers trailing behind them, whining about their costumes and makeup. Mothers glared at me as I choked on hairspray fumes in the bathroom because I was taking up mirror time for their little darling beauty queens. I saw a mother putting false eyelashes on a little girl who could barely walk. The fathers, some of them shell-shocked, but some of them creepy, sat on the couches outside the room. The whole thing just gave our poor little publishers’ enclave the chills.

Unfortunately the spectacle was nothing compared with the music. For the “talent” part of the competition, the girls performed some kind of dance routine to brief snippets (about thirty seconds a piece) of the following songs: “Isn’t She Lovely,” by Stevie Wonder; the “Theme from 2001” (I don’t know who performed this, as it wasn’t the one from the movie, and I’m sure it wasn’t “Thus Spake Zarathustra”); and “Celebrate Good Times,” by Kool ‘n the Gang. The selections were incomprehensible, as each song predated the contestants by decades.

But never mind whether the girls could relate to the music or not. Let’s talk about the volume. Ear bleed. My book table was about three feet from the flimsy hotel ballroom divider, and my chair leaned up against it. The divider was shaking, the volume was so loud. I couldn’t really talk to the few customers who came into the book exhibit, lured enough by the promise of book bargains to endure the noise. It was hard to hear anything other than the music. Thirty second of each song, at ear bleed, over and over again for hours and hours and hours. There weren’t enough painkillers in the world to take away the pain.

I can’t remember exactly when I started to crack, making up alternate lyrics and doing interpretative dance when customers weren’t around, but it couldn’t have been too terribly long into the day. Academic shows tend to make me a little stir crazy anyway, but this was too much.

I started giggling and asking other exhibitors to name the nameless-to-us pageant. We tried to suggest better song titles. JonBenet Ramsey comments were a plenty (how weird is it that that guy who claimed to have killed her comes out from hiding in Thailand not two seconds after Little Miss Sunshine was released?).

Pretty soon everyone was sharing in the gallows humor, and the infuriating riot of it all carried us away. We couldn’t cry. We couldn’t really go in there and castigate the parents for subjecting their daughters to a lifetime of eating disorders, skewed self-perceptions, and bad relationships. At one point in the day, I did go over and ask the people to turn it down, but to no avail (“We paid for this room,” drawled the man at the registration table). So we laughed instead. Bonds are forged in adverse situations, and these survivors are still my friends. Every time I see my fellow "survivors" at shows, we regale each other with tales from the academic beauty pageant show.

So, two and a half years after experiencing a little girl beauty pageant, I was sitting in the Kendall Square Cinema, watching Little Miss Sunshine. The whole family had gone to hell three-quarters of the way through the movie, but now that the grandpa had died, the book deal had fallen through, the Nietzsche idolizer realized that he would never be an uber mensch, and the second-best Proust scholar had been caught buying porn at a gas station by his ex-boyfriend, things just might wind up okay. There was just one little problem. Olive, the odd-girl out at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, was about to make a complete fool of herself in the talent competition. The other contestants, perfectly coifed like little china dolls, could sing, dance, and flip to the beat, and Olive just wasn't up to snuff. Some family members tried to stop her, but Olive refused. Not to be deterred, and dressed in a suit, tie, and bowler, she walked out onto the stage.

“She’s a very kinky girl,” Rick James starts to moan, as Olive began the incredibly inappropriate yet so fitting strip number choreographed by her junkie grandpa. “The kind ya don’t bring home to motha…”

“Oh. Holy. Shit.” I whispered to (insert favorite boyfriend name here). That’s it! That’s the perfect song for this kind of sick and twisted affair! Olive started doing little-girl gyrations, and I howled until I started rocking back and forth, gasping for breath, in absolute hysterics. Olive’s family, at first as stunned as the rest of the crowd, rallied to the occasion and soon followed her on stage, clapping and superfreakin’ out to the music, and I came back to breathing capacity, thrilled that someone finally played the perfect number for a little girl’s beauty pageant.

I sent the following e-mail to my publishing friends:

Dear Survivors of the Little Miss Future $%^&*@ of America Pageant,

Do not walk. Run to your nearest theater and see Little Miss Sunshine. Funny in its own right, you will guffaw all the harder at the final scene for having endured the Little Miss Future $%^&*@ of America pageant at the ____ meeting in 2004.

I nearly peed, in any event.

Context is the key, and sometimes it can be delightful. We all bring things with us to stories. I brought my beauty pageant to Little Miss Sunshine.

Some Shame-Filled Thoughts on Katrina

This morning, I awoke to Carl Kasell reporting on our useless leader’s visit to the Gulf Coast region on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Memories of that disaster, natural yes, but also horrifyingly political, flooded my mind.

I checked news reports constantly the day the storm barreled into New Orleans, hoping that the city would be spared. Although I’d never been to New Orleans, the city held a special fascination with me. It was a unique place in the world, I thought. I’d heard countless stories of New Orleans from history classes, novels like Jitterbug Perfume (and, OK, a couple of very guilty pleasure Ann Rice novels), and my first grad school roommate who had gone to Tulane for his undergrad. I never had much of a desire to see Mardi Gras, as it seemed a ritual too far removed to have much meaning any more, but still, the city had a creepy allure that placed it on my list of cities I wanted to wander through before my wandering days on this Earth cease. Afraid of voodoo, yes. Want to see some little old lady with a certain gleam in her eyes, absolutely.

And so I checked the news the day the storm struck. I remember early photos, with the winds blowing lampposts on Bourbon Street. I remember cheering when I heard that the French Quarter had been spared, and it looked as though the rest of the city, while battered, would survive.

But then all hell broke loose. As the city flooded, the waters covering the city exposed an ugly fact about America. We claim that we want freedom and democracy—and prosperity—to spread around the world, but if you are black and poor in the United States, you are shit out of luck. While the National Guard was sent off to kill people in Iraq, Brownie was doing a heckuva job in New Orleans.

My romantic vision of New Orleans fills me with shame as I see its reality, the ugly reality of race and class in the United States. It is just so disgusting that for days on end people had to scream for help from their rooftops to keep from drowning in fetid waters while our leaders did absolutely nothing. That people died from thirst in overheated stadiums. That people who had nothing are left with still less. I don’t have much by way of analysis here, just a deep sense of shame that in the richest country on the Earth, people live like this, and we still do nothing.

Monday, August 28, 2006

London, France, Orange Skull Underpants

I had a hilarious thing happen to me the other week, and I thought I’d share. Had this happened in junior high, I would not only not be sharing, I would never show my face in public again.

So, I went to a free outdoor show (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—outside before dark is not the best time to see them, I think) near City Hall in Boston with my boyfriend and some of his friends. We listened to the music, people watched, and outfit critiqued (people should know that most 80s fashions did not look good on most of us then, and they do not look good on most of us now). One friend spied a young woman sitting not very prettily, and I told the story of how I’d seen a woman hop a fence after the fireworks one Fourth of July only to have her skirt catch on a post and come off. She hadn’t been wearing any underpants. It got the usual laugh.

OK, this looks pretty cute here. But remember, she is a model. She's really tall. She's really thin. Don't you remember what this looked like on you?

After the show, we were walking behind the crowd to get to the North End for some food. We stepped over a grate, and, little did I know, the grate had amazing gusts of air blowing out of it. I was wearing a skirt. The kind of skirt that apparently shoots straight up in the air when it is hit from below by gusts of wind. Me not being Marilyn Monroe, my skirt did not blow up in a playful, coy, or sexy way. As the playground chant goes, people saw London. People saw France. People saw my orange skull underpants.

These are the offending pair

For a couple of seconds, I was in complete shock as the wind continued to suspend my skirt up over my head. I then realized what was happening, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to proceed. Thankfully, a friend intervened and pulled me to safety. She was laughing hysterically, trying to feign concerned for my dignity. My boyfriend was staring at me, unsure of what to do.

OK, I processed. I was in a city, at a concert, with lots and lots of people milling around, and my skirt blew over my head, exposing my underwear to anyone walking by. A small part of me that is still in junior high was screaming “Run! Run! Get out of here! Everyone is looking at you! They saw your gigantor butt! Your boyfriend and all of his friends saw you make a fool of yourself! Hide!”

But I’m not in junior high anymore. And I love my orange skull underpants. OK, people were pointing and laughing, but it was a hoot. I about collapsed in hysterical laughter. The friend who saved me gave me a high five. My boyfriend gave me a hug and laughed. I took a bow, and we walked on.

Realizations: (1) I am so glad I am no longer in junior high. Those eighties fashions looked awful on me. (2) Always wear cool underwear.

Cave Woman

So. Blogging. I swore I’d never do it, and here I am. Janey Come Lately. It's not terribly unusual, I'm afraid, for me to swear to do something and then change my mind. Here’s a short list of things I’ve sworn never to do and then caved:

Use E-mail
This was in 1994, and I passionately believed that e-mail was a dehumanizing and artificial form of communication that would lead us further down the road of inorganic commercialization. (Yes, I was a horrible brat in those days, and I said things like that.) I still sort-of believe this, but I caved long ago when a professor threatened fail anyone who refused to learn this new technology. I am now paid for my e-mail skills.

Buy a Computer
This was while I was still in college, and I had read Wendell Berry’s essay about how he’d never use a computer. When I started graduate school and bought one, I consoled myself by saying that Wendell Berry also had his wife type up all of his manuscripts, and that seemed sexist to me.

Get a Cell Phone
I hated and still hate how annoying and pretentious people can be with their cell phones, especially devotees of Bluetooth headsets (do you ever wonder if people affix those things to their ear just so they can talk to themselves without looking crazy?). Thing is, about three years ago, I moved three times in six months, and people couldn’t keep track of my phone numbers. It was hard enough to move someplace new. I didn’t need to lose all of my friends in the process. Hence, I caved and got a cell phone. I’ve even knit a couple of cozies for my latest one (see “be crafty” below). I don’t, however, have a Bluetooth headset. Those things just look stupid.

Troll the Internet for Dates
Shock. I believed in love at first sight and thought that internet dating was the absolute death of romance. That is, I thought that until I realized that I hadn’t had a date in an embarrassingly long length of time and had no prospects of getting one. I had plenty of married men my father’s age hitting on me, and my twenty-one-year-old neighbor who was little-brother cute but dumb as a stick fancied me too. Sadly I wasn’t into dating married father figures or dumb boys, so the dry spell was fixing to get a whole lot drier. A good friend painstakingly convinced me to jettison my belief that I would bump into the love of my life ala Before Sunrise, and I finally caved. I now have a fantastic boyfriend thanks to the information superhighway.

Buy Anything Made in China
I took up this one after working in a retail store that stocked a bunch of useless crap made in China. I didn’t cave easily on this one, but since I was naked and didn’t have much by way of necessary stuff, I started buying stuff made in China. There was a sigh heard ‘round the world from friends and family on this one. Unfortunately, I even like some of the shiny plastic crap I’ve bought made by the children and political prisoners of China.

Be Crafty
Lest you think that only technology and consumer goods were my sworn enemies, I also hated crafts. With a passion. I thought that it was because I was a feminist, but really, it was because I lacked the patience as a child to master them. Crafts, however, are in my blood. My people were born to them, and it was only a matter of time before I caved. It started with a pottery class that was better than therapy because I got dishes. Soon after came batik. You get to make a horrible mess with batik. Messes are fun. I then realized that I really liked knitted things, so I asked my mom (quite the knitter) to help me learn. Now I make my own hats, mittens, scarves, cell-phone cozies, and sundry gifts for friends and family. A few years ago, I realized I wasn’t the only feminist doing crafts. I’m currently working on a bag from the Stitch n’ Bitch book. The other day, I showed a co-worker how to purl. I felt triumphant.

My cell phone's cozies

Learn How to Cook
Why learn how to cook? Feminists don’t spend their lives cooking for some man. But then I lived away from home, and wanted things like, say, fried eggs for breakfast. At age twenty-four, I had no idea how to do this, and my roommate had to show me. A few years later, I got a part-time job at a Le Creuset outlet to supplement my nonprofit income. I managed to score a nearly priceless set of amazing cookware with the best discount ever (sadly, I hear that the program is discontinued, so don’t go trying to get a job there). Surrounded by a ton (literally, if you’ve ever seen the stuff, you’ll know what I mean) of cookware, I decided that I needed to learn how to cook. I’ve since wowed family and friends with some of my dishes (my notoriously picky boyfriend cleaned his plate this weekend---I know, I cooked for some man), and I even won the “Critics' Choix” award at a Soup Off. I’m ridiculously proud of this accomplishment. I won a bag, and I tote it all over the place.

My "Critics' Choix" bag (the apostrophe fell off somewhere in my travels) and a very large and very heavy Le Creuset Soup Pot

So now you know my word is crap, and that I often give in to the dark side, sometimes gleefully. You also may have gathered that I’m a bit of idealist, but I also have a strong practical streak, allowing me to rationalize my way out many a situation. Sometimes this streak bugs the everloving shit out of me, but most of the time I like the fact that I respond to reason.

This gets me to why I’m starting to blog now, years after it was the hip thing to do. I’ve never been a big reader of blogs. I read “Chocolate and Zucchini” for the recipes. And I like Nerve’s Blog-a-Log, especially “girlgonemad” and “the_sentimental” (I know, Oliver’s very self-absorbed---he’s also very charming). I’ve read a couple of political blogs of the left-leaning variety, but I’ll admit that I tend to look at Common Dreams or the Nation’s web site for the news of the day.

What brings me to blogging is that, like many other bloggers out here in cyberspace, I want to write something of note someday, and this seems like a good way to practice. The other reason is that I put together a little e-mail every day for coworkers, friends, and family. They seem to like it, so I figured I’d expand the circle. Practical reason wins the day. I’ve caved. So, welcome to my blog, Sassy Sundry Thoughts. Hope you like it.