Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Accounting for Taste on International Women's Day

It is International Women's Day today, and I wanted to acknowledge it with a post. It can be difficult to explain to men why women's rights is still an issue. After all, laws and regulations that prohibit women's participation are decreasing and opportunities are increasing. But the point is that there is still lots left to do because women and women's views are marginal, meaning they are not the default assumptions.

Let me try to explain using a story.

Movie star and activist, George Clooney, has a reputation for being a practical joker. One of his more elaborate pranks involved an enormous hideous painting that he had pick up  from the curb on garbage day.  George often played golf with his close friend, Richard Kind. For a year, whenever Richard asked him to go play golf, he would say, "I can't. I've got art class." Finally, Richard's birthday rolled around and George gave him the big, garish painting, with his signature and in a frame. George said, "'My art teacher's really proud of me but this (painting) is the first one we're both really proud of. You've been so supportive, I want you to have it." It hung over Richard's couch for two years and George would send instruct their mutual friends to go and compliment the painting in superlatives. Everyone else was in on the joke.

I want you to imagine what it was like being Richard. For years, he looked at this painting and thought it was awful, but everyone thought it looked amazing. He probably had many feelings of self-doubt, questioned his own taste, and his ability to appreciate art. He was the odd one out and constantly being reinforced by messages from his friends.

Being a woman is a bit like this. I'm constantly bombarded with tiny hints that I'm the odd one out, that I'm not the default. Karen Valby wrote, "When women rally around something in pop culture, it isn't long before the objects of their attraction are loudly trivialized or dismissed." Take the book (and movie) "Eat, Pray, Love" for example, which tells the story of how a woman got over being an unhappy divorcee by traveling the world. In other words, it's a rite of passage story where the main character is a woman and the antagonists are inside of her. Not your typical story, which in part accounts for its success. The novel made it to number one on The New York Times paperback nonfiction list and was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It doesn't get much bigger than this.

Yet the page for this book on Amazon.com is filled with hateful comments, not just by men and not just by people who have read the book. Elizabeth Gilbert has stopped reading and responding to the reviews. She sums up the reaction to the popularity of the book and movie this way: "If women like it, it must be stupid." In high school, there were certain musicians that girls liked, such as Duran Duran and Corey Hart, and boys always made fun of us for liking. I could never understand what was so bad about them. It's like a twisted version of the prank that George Clooney pulled. But the worst part is it's not a joke.

The blog "My Fault I'm Female" features anecdotes sent in by readers when they had to face stereotypes or deal with unequal treatment or plain old incomprehension, just because they were female. I like reading this blog because it reminds me that I'm not crazy and that it's OK for me to be angry at the thousand tiny cuts that I suffer because my existence challenges assumptions.

Living on the margins is an odd thing. On the one hand, things are never easy, because I'm not one of the "cool kids," to borrow a metaphor from high school social interactions. Interactions always have to be negotiated and discovered anew, because things can't be taken for granted. On the other hand, there are advantages to being able to understand and appreciate cool and not cool. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

1 comment:

Laurian Vega said...

So very true. I can't help by associate with what you say here. In particular, being in male dominated fields where you are told that your goals are less valuable, or how you view your work is less valuable, sometimes makes you want to give up, stay at home, and assimilate.