Tuesday, October 27, 2009

There's More to Life Than Marriage

I was very disappointed in the coverage of The Shriver Report, Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress’ massive investigation in the status of women today. Despite having a cover in Time and a daily segment all last week on the NBC Nightly News, not to mention all the other reports, I didn’t find anything said to be remotely unexpected or even all that interesting (though the charts in Time were cool). Most of it was known, if you looked. I was more intrigued by the reports, both recently and in the spring, on women’s happiness; that was where the real issues came to light, in trying to theorize and explain the results.

Today, I watched a segment from Good Morning America featuring Meghan McCain and Maria Shriver discussing the Women’s Conference and by extension, the report. Normally I would not bother, since I tend to dislike daytime television in general, and despite the banner for the GMA website proclaiming the show has won the Daytime Emmy for Best Morning Broadcast three years in a row, I was not convinced that I was going to be seeing anything that spectacular. But I was mildly interested, mainly because I like both Meghan McCain and Maria Shriver.

Both women were as expected, Meghan earnest and excited, the First Lady of California very professional, but the piece was unremarkable. Until Diane Sawyer (future World News anchor!) had to ask the dumbest question of all, following Maria Shriver’s comments on choices:
Can you have a completely fulfilled life without marrying, just as a career woman?
She then points out Meghan’s age, 25, and then says the average age of marriage (first time, for women) is 25-26, implicitly implying that Meghan, who as far as the public knows is not heading down the aisle any time soon, is facing that possibility.

What an incredibly stupid and insulting question.

Of course the answer is of course, which is what Meghan gave—and to her credit, answered it directly, though with a stone face.

Why is this question still being asked? Why is it only asked of women? I have never once heard someone ask this question to a male. We ask, “Do you think you’ll get married?”, or “Would you like to get married someday?”, or “When do you think you’ll get married?”, always implying there’s an option. But for women, it is an either/or question. Why is the assumption made that all women want marriage, that it’s a good thing for a particular individual, that that is the only right choice—and that “career woman”, that 1950s term, is the only alternative? Or that you can’t be both? The whole point that Maria Shriver made 15 seconds before was that women can make different choices and that they should not be demonized for their decisions!

Some marriages are terrible. Some people don’t want to get married. Some people shouldn’t get married. People can live their lives the way they want to, and they shouldn’t be forced to conform to a set of outdated standards that supposedly promise fulfillment. Asking this question, no matter how it is answered, only reaffirms the outdated thinking behind it. If the whole point of A Woman’s Nation was to spotlight how women actually think, what they want and how they live, they can start by asking some new ones.

"The Response Has Been a Collective Shrug"

David Brooks and Bob Herbert’s recent conversation is on the war in Afghanistan, and they argue that in order for Americans to really feel they have a tangible stake in this war, there needs to be sacrifice.

President Obama has said the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity, essential to the security of Americans here at home. If that’s the case, then I think an awful lot of us should be doing an awful lot more.

In the Second World War, those who did not serve in uniform nevertheless endured shortages of fuel, certain types of food and material goods. The nation took great collective pride in the fight against the Nazis and the Japanese. Major industries were converted to war production. Bonds were sold. Taxes were raised. There was very much a sense that “we’re in this together.”

I have always said that this needs to be true for a vast majority of Americans to really care about the war. Like what Brooks says, everyone supports the troops—and that’s all well and fine and good, but unless you are truly touched, feel that you are actively doing something on a sustained basis for those overseas and have a real stake in the outcome, then it’s really hard to feel invested in what’s happening.

Without a reason or an innate interest, people don’t care. That’s true of a lot of things, including politics. Healthcare reform is getting traction because it’s become such a big thing, affecting everyone’s wallets and choices, and those who aren’t paying attention are the ones asleep at the wheel. Why do people suddenly become invested in a subject? Often because it now has directly affected them. That’s why people suddenly start supporting disease research they previously were unaware of before their friend got sick, try to quit smoking when a family member is diagnosed with lung cancer, pay attention to school board elections when their child starts kindergarten.

Brooks offers some suggestions, one of which he calls a “civilian nation-building academy”, which would train people in the various ways they could help rebuild countries. It sounds like something out of the nonprofit sector. While there has been a resurgence of coverage on community service and volunteering (with cover stories in Time, national volunteer week, high-profile broadcast campaigns), that’s not the same as having a mobilized country or workforce. With high unemployment, volunteer numbers are up, but that doesn’t mean that it’s so easy to find a spot helping out for a few hours. And avenues like the Peace Corps and Americorps aren’t for everyone, and they only impact a relatively small amount of people.

But without sacrifice, a large mobilized movement with tangible consequences that affects a great number of people, this collective shrug won’t turn into a fiery stance. We’ve seen how healthcare reform has mobilized people, gotten them to talk and to serious think about the issue, we just need that to happen to the war.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why are there not more female pundits?

I've never thought of this before, at least in a conscious way.

My new favorite blogger, Brooklyn-based and Midwestern-transplant-by-way-of-DC Elizabeth Nolan Brown, tackles the question.

1) Being a political journalist/columnist, or a serious national affairs/sociocultural-type reporter/freelancer, has got to be hard (both in terms of skill level and opportunities to break in). Very hard, regardless of gender. It’s not something any writer/reporter can just do. But women, I think, have a lot more options when it comes to the range of topics, in general, they can write about and still be “journalists.” There are many, many more (paying) outlets for fashion/beauty/entertainment/sex/relationship writing than political writing. In my own fantasies of the joys/horrors of ever trying to strike it as a freelance writer, I’ve browsed through all the how-to-query sheets on media bistro, and sometimes wondered why the heck I wasn’t trying to write the fluff stuff seriously.

So for the kind of person who starts out with mild pretensions of being a serious journalist, or even just a daily news reporter, or a mildly authentic storyteller, and finds it daunting/hard/unrenumerative, etc., there’s a lot easier ‘out,’ I think, for women than for men, who, for the most part, don’t have the option of writing about healthy/beauty/fashion/etc. It’s kind of the same psychology that I think is often under-valued when explaining why women ‘opt out’ of the workplace—work can suck! It’s sometimes hard, and sometimes boring, and for people who don’t find themselves in a perfect situation, staying home with the kids full-time can seem like a socially acceptable way to ‘fail,’ to give up—one that more men would avail themselves of, too, if they could as easily.

2) Another thing is that there are very few separate “men’s issues” in politics, or media, but there are separate “women’s issues”—things like reproductive rights, gender discrimination, the politics of motherhood, media sexism, etc., just to name a few. While these should *theoretically* be things of concern to both genders, they’re not, and I can’t entirely blame men for not taking them as seriously (while I pay attention to, say, race issues, it’s not—for better or worse—something I tend to spend much time exploring in depth or writing about or anything like that; also, why would a male writer want to carve out a niche in writing about sexism, or gender discrimination, or reproductive rights? There’s always going to be a woman writer who can claim more authenticity, and some who even feel offended by a male writing about these things, so there’s totally a disincentive for them to even consider doing so).

Women have had to carve out their own spaces in the blogosphere—places like Broadsheet, Feministe, Feministing, XX Factor, Jezebel, (Ladyblog!)—to discuss these issues, separate from the “real” political issues, like military endeavors, campaigns, taxes, etc. Again, this is understandable; there are a few Big General Political Issues, the sorts that get talked about at the major political blogs and magazines, the hard news stuff, and then all sorts of non-gendered softer stuff – education, race issues, food politics – have to carve out their own separate spaces as well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. It’s just that … well, a lot of very smart, very political women writers/bloggers/pundits are naturally going to be attracted to reading about issues that directly affect them. Which means less time keeping up with the Big General Political Issues. There are only so many hours that can be devoted to keeping up with blog conversations per day, and every minute spent reading Shakesville or the Independent Women’s Forum blog means less time that can be devoted to, say, Andrew Sullivan or Matthew Iglesias. It’s impossible to keep up with it all.

I’m not someone who’s ever had any aspirations to being a Serious Political Blogger (clearly), but as someone who does want to participate in whatever small way in the conversation, who lives in DC, who hangs out with a lot of journalists and writers, and who just generally wants to be well-informed about what’s going on … even I find it daunting. So I think, yeah, this is certainly a disadvantage for women writers/bloggers who do aspire to really be out there—either you’ve got to just do the women’s stuff, or just do the Big Political Issues, and that’s got to be a hard call to have to make. [And, again, the socialization thing, but I think women who show an interest in political/sociology/media etc. are still often encouraged more to focus on social issues than on horserace politics, economics, or foreign affairs).

3) A lot of who-writes-for-where-and-about-what is driven by editors. And if an editor has two people, a man and a woman, who can write about some economic issue, but only the woman can credibly write an article about, say,the 'opt out revolution,' they're going to assign the either/or story to the guy so they can assign the women's-only story to the girl. That's certainly not sexist. But it does work against more women writing about the Serious General Political Issues.

Taken as a whole, I think women actually have many more opportunities than men to make a career out of being writers/jouranlists/bloggers. Just not necessarily writing about the kinds of things they may want to write about, or the kinds of things on which we place a premium as Serious Issues.

A couple of comments:

Yes, men can and do write about non-political matters: the mastheads of Esquire, Details, and Men's Fitness are made up of men. Granted, these positions are few and far between, but it's not totally out of the question. Entertainment journalism has plenty of men, too.

I especially second the point about why women opt out. Besides the fact that it's more socially acceptable for a mother to quit her job to care for children, if women have the means to do so, if work isn't that important to them, then why not? Depending upon the woman, this may not be an agonizing decision to make, but an easy one.

But overall, very astute analysis. The blogosphere has changed things somewhat--and I still believe things will change in the future. But even up-and-comers like Dana Goldstein still mix in social issues and psychology; they just aren't the "true" pundits. Personally, I like my commentators to be as well-rounded as possible, I like them to comment on social issues, mix in a popular song or two, discuss the cultural significance (or not) of The Good Wife. And that's done by men, too.

(Hat tip Conor Friedersdorf)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Feminism

I just have to spotlight this wonderfully funny, very well-written piece on how Spanx illustrates the physical illusions women go through to look attractive.
But the truth is that I love glamour. I love coquettish lingerie. I also love Häagen-Dazs, and making out, and that red polka-dot swing dress I can't quite fit into right now, and comfort, and male attention, and sometimes I think the real trick of womanhood (of adulthood, probably) is toggling back and forth between those desires without losing yourself in any one. Of course I would love to be the woman who slips on that dress and looks fabulous without ancillary assistance, but let me tell you I did give that a whirl, and I looked possibly pregnant. And while the gentleman caller may or may not have cared, I know that I cared, desperately, that I would spend the whole evening at an otherwise enjoyable get-together tugging and twisting and turning at improbable angles. And so the Spanx gave me a jolt of confidence, a license to swing my hips lustily and allow strangers' eyes to linger over my body without fidgeting and land surprise make-outs with gentleman callers, and that is a pretty smashing bargain for $10 at Target. (emphasis mine)
And that's how I've come to view feminism. The more I read--through all the critiques and criticisms, the hand-wringing and the angst--it seems to come down to balancing as best as possible your own beliefs, the necessary compromises. Because feminism alone, as a theory, isn't practical, isn't sustainable in the day-t0-day, and there always is a tension between say, wanting men's attention and not wanting to want men's attention. Or in popular parlance, the Madonna-whore dichotomy. Women are largely both, just in different spheres, at different times.