My “Gender”

Our first post of the semester comes from Prof. Joel Nadler, who is based in the Psychology Department and directs the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Masters program at SIUE.  His research interests include gender bias in selection and performance appraisal, sexual harassment, organizational attractiveness, adverse impact (EEO law), and assessing inclusive diversity practices.  You can read more about his work at his website, www.JoelNadlerPhD.com.

In this post, Joel thinks about gender both broadly and personally, and his discussion of the “heroes of gender” is a celebration of gender fluidity and a call to “wave our own flags of gender defiance.”

Disclaimer.  I consider myself to be a passive feminist.  I both accept the concept of gender conformity for those that are comfortable with the two factor solution, while simultaneously supporting all those that struggle against the oppression of such a system.  I am not a feminist scholar.  I am an Industrial/Organizational psychologist.  My research interests are practice based and legal in nature. I study how to reduce stereotype bias in section and promotion that results in increased success, productivity, and profit for organizations.  My research also focuses on what works for the individual in the context of the “world as it is” with little focus on social justice and the sociological context of our world.  What follows is my personal reflections of gender as I have experienced it inspired by, but somewhat separate, from my academic endeavors.

What is gender?  It is dichotomy, it is historical, it is cultural, it is roles established by occupational and family expectations, and it is opposing social constructs of masculinity and femininity.  The expectations of these gender based terms, stereotypes, and roles vary from culture to culture. However; with only a very small number of exceptions across cultures and times gender is almost always conceptualized as an either or.  Gender is indicator of power, gender is weakness, gender is agency, gender is communality, gender is sexual orientation, gender is attraction, gender is behavior, gender is conformity, gender is blue and pink, gender is who pays for the date.  Gender is monolithic, gender is stiffing, gender is a prison, and gender determines what emotions can be expressed. Gender is the first question asked of each human and one of the most basic categorizations we are trained to view the world through.  Gender is a box to be checked on a form and then conformed to…

What should gender be?  That is just as complex of a question.  Gender should be identity, gender should be malleable, gender should be unique, and gender should be personal.  Gender should be cherished, embraced, and accepted.  Gender should be intimate, discovered, and through a lifetime evolved.  Sex can guide gender but gender should not be constrained by it. Gender should not involve absolutes and should be one of the last questions asked regarding how to define a person.

Who are the heroes of gender?  The heroes are those that struggles against the norms.  Those that do not fit in the box and those that refuse to conform.  People that proudly identify with terms such as transgender, gender queer, those that struggle to insist there is more than male and female, and those that cry out “I don’t want to fit”, but I want my culture to be ‘OK’ with that choice.  Those that say “what does it matter what is my chromosomal make up is or the nature of my genitalia, I am so much more, and deserve to be allowed to define myself in a way that makes sense to me.” Continue reading

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Troubling the Gender Binary: Middle School Students Creating and Performing “Non-Sexist” Advertisements.

Today’s post, written by Educational Leadership Professor Laurie Puchner and Sociology Professor Linda Markowitz, gives us a first look at their recent collaborative project, one in which they ask middle school students to challenge the sorts of gender binaries reflected in–and reinforced by– the media.  There’s so much to think about here: in encouraging middle school students to engage in critical conversations about gender, Laurie and Linda make us aware of how early messages about gender are transmitted.  By inviting students to disrupt these messages, they also demonstrate that students can (literally) rewrite the sorts of scripts that they encounter daily, and by extension, redefine the gender roles they embrace and reject.

The media is a powerful place where many of us learn to do gender.   Unfortunately, what the media teaches us about being female or male reinforces a belief in a false gender dichotomy. From the media, we learn that women are nurturing, gossipy and have the primary occupation of being sex objects for the male gaze and that men are active heroes who are sort of goofy but have important jobs making sure society functions smoothly.

Women’s Studies classes reveal the overt and sometimes covert messages about women and men we get in the media.   In fact, sometimes it becomes difficult to watch our favorite show or movie when we deconstruct the gender messages tucked neatly inside the program.   Learning about the constraining gender messages in the media has empowered some of us to actually begin troubling the gender binary in our own lives.

We wondered if some of what we teach and learn in Women’s Studies classes could be taught to children in secondary schools with the same effect.   So, in 2012-13 we participated in a grant-funded project to develop and test a critical media literacy curriculum unit aimed at middle school students. We had two goals in mind: to encourage students to critically examine gendered stereotypes in media, especially as they relate to occupations; and to ask students to trouble the binary by having them create their own non-gender stereotypical media representations. We taught the unit in five 8th grade classes.

The critical media literacy unit consisted of four 45-minute lessons comprising discussion and activities revolving around multiple examples of print and video ads. At the end of the third lesson students received a handout describing their final assignment. In the assignment, students were instructed to work in small groups to create a video advertisement for a product. The ad had to: “Advertise a specific product of your choice; Challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforce them. (In other words, the ad must be counter-stereotypical); Pertain to occupations in some way.” Continue reading

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Feminist Awakenings: A Personal “Women’s History” this Month

Today’s post comes from Prof. Catherine Seltzer, the Director of the Women’s Studies Program.  (And now I’m going to go ahead and shift to first person, since I write the headnotes…)  My post today is about the recent exhibit I helped to curate with Prof. Mary Rose of Lovejoy Library.  We wanted to try to do something a little different in our celebration of Women’s History Month this year, and so we decided to focus on a more immediate and local definition history–our own.  For this exhibit, which we have titled “Feminist Awakenings: Artifacts of Impact,” we asked people from all areas of campus to contribute an “artifact” associated with their earliest feminist impulses, or, more generally, their initial awareness of gender constructs.  In this post, I write a bit about the idea of “feminist awakenings” and about the exhibit as it took shape. 

 Please do stop by the exhibit on the first floor of Lovejoy Library.  (It runs through the end of March.)  Please feel free, too, to respond to the display in the comment section of this blog post.

photo-1One of the cases in the exhibit “Feminist Awakenings: Artifacts of Impact”

I remember reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for the first time.  I was taking an undergraduate course on the American Novel with the wonderful scholar Elsa Nettels.  Everything Prof. Nettels chose that semester seemed to me to be revelatory in some way: it was a feast of James, Cather, and Faulkner.  But it was The Awakening that really caused, well, an awakening.  If you haven’t read the book, the novel’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, feels an indefinable but undeniable dissatisfaction with her life as a wealthy mother in turn of the century Louisiana, an articulation of what Betty Freidan would later term “the problem that has no name.”  Edna’s struggle to connect with an authentic self is both frustrating and exhilarating; she is a deeply flawed character, but also one who is also enormously sympathetic.

At the end of the novel [Spoiler Alert!] Edna ultimately swims into the sea, and her suicide is read by many as an act conscious rebellion, and by others as one of defeat, or at least concession.  Some twenty years after first reading the novel, I love to teach it in my own American literature courses.  I find that I approach Edna in different ways as the years pass, but it is the ambiguity that surrounds her choices—even beyond those at the end of The Awakening—that I continually relish.  Relatively early in the novel, a third person voice assures us, “[T]he beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.  How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!  How many souls perish in its tumult!”  An awakening, Chopin suggests here, is not an epiphany—a clear understanding of truth—but rather a broader sense that a truth may exist and, as importantly, an acknowledged desire to pursue it.  That search, as Chopin notes in these lines and throughout The Awakening, is often marked by missteps, confusion, and even danger.

When Prof. Mary Rose and I decided to curate an exhibit of objects donated by members of the university community that represented moments of gender consciousness—of feminist awakening, or, more expansively, a recognition of gender constructs—we were drawing from our own experience in some ways: as we crafted our invitation to participate, for example, I was remembering that early encounter with Chopin’s novel and hoped other members of the campus community—students, staff, faculty, and administrators—would share similar moments.  They did even more.  We asked all of the participants to loan us an object that represented that “moment of recognition” for them, and to include a very short narrative—less than 150 words—to accompany the piece.  What these objects and stories depict is what Chopin calls “the beginning of things,” and taken together the contributions to the exhibit speak to “the necessarily vague, chaotic” and, occasionally, “exceedingly disturbing” qualities of seeing the world through a new lens. Continue reading

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“Why Don’t They Just Pull Each Other’s Hair?”

Today’s post is from Prof. Lindsay Ross-Stewart, whose research focuses on  sport and exercise psychology.  In this blog post, she considers the widespread nature of gender bias in sports spectatorship, arguing that this is not a direct response to any diminished accomplishment on the part of the athletes, but rather a collective anxiety about the ways that gender plays out vis a vis sports.  Be sure to follow the links she’s provided here.  The images she’s provided may have you pulling on your own hair in frustration….

I was watching the Canada versus USA Gold Medal Hockey game last week when one of the women I was watching with asked “Why don’t they just pull each other’s hair?” Around 15 minutes later someone else entered the room and after a few minutes he said “I am surprised they don’t pull each other’s hair.” I have watched a lot of sports, many involving men’s teams, and no one has ever asked “why don’t they just kick each other in the junk?” as a serious sport question. So I began to wonder why is this question asked so often that I didn’t even flinch at the question, instead I just gave my standard answer, it is about playing within the written, and unwritten rules. I mean really think about it, if they did pull each other’s hair what would that accomplish? A penalty and perhaps an ejection – so why would an athlete do that? So why were people watching the hockey game so interested in the fact that the players had pony tails? I really don’t know, but here is what I think….

Imagine this you are watching a hockey game and the game is physical, I mean really physical. Numerous penalties have been handed out, a couple players are even a little bloody by the end. What image is in your mind? Do you see players in their hockey gear, helmets, face masks, padding? If you do, then you can’t see gender, because the padding covers shape, and the helmet and face mask cover the faces of the players. You can’t see if the hockey players are male or female. In fact the only thing that would give away whether the game was a men’s game or a women’s game would be how many pony tails you see hanging out the helmets. I have a feeling no one reading this will have imagined pony tails since pony tails are not part of our natural understanding of what a hockey player looks like. They are however, part of our schema for what a woman looks like – and therein lies the reason why people focused on the pony tails. Continue reading

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“Unamused by My Erasure”: Feminist Selfies and the Politics of Representation

Today’s post from Prof. Alison Reiheld puts a decidedly 2014 spin on the question, “How do we see ourselves?”

Reiheld 1[Image Credit: Field and Stream, 2008]

“I want to see more young women holding a fish than holding their camera in front of a bathroom mirror doing a selfie.” –Sarah Palin, January 2014

Whatever you think of Sarah Palin as a politician, she has important social relevance for the perception of women in America. She presents herself as a rural conservative who stands for family values, yet whose version of family values has accommodated working outside the home while her husband served as the primary caregiver for her children. She is a “mama grizzly” who will be aggressive and not back down from a fight, despite the fact that the very term positions her as fighting for a typically feminine domain: the family (as Marilyn Frye argued in “A Note on Anger”, aggression and anger by women gets more “uptake”—is given more credence—when it is on behalf of the private sphere, traditionally a woman’s proper domain). Palin is, thus, a curious figure from a feminist perspective. For a certain portion of the American population, Palin’s utterances have a great deal of rhetorical power. Even people who disagree with her often feel it important to take a public stand against her. So when she critiques young women who take selfies, folks pay attention.

The particular quote which begins my post has been widely panned as fundamentally anti-feminist. And yet for a particular version of feminism which seeks to broaden our notions of femininity beyond the constrained and delicate bodily habits critiqued by Iris Marion Young in “Throwing Like a Girl” and Sandra Bartky in “Skin Deep: Femininity as a Disciplinary Regime”, beyond the demure feminine comportment of long tradition, Palin’s comment need not be seen as anti-feminist. Here is what she is NOT advocating when she says she wants to see more young women in pictures holding fish they presumably caught:

  • Young women should focus on how their bodies are perceived by men, and seek to satisfy the male gaze
  • Being passive and presenting oneself as passive
  • Being shy and retiring about one’s accomplishments
  • Being clean and domestic
  • Being dressed in a way that values form over function
  • Being dependent upon others

 Now it could be argued that it is pretty weak sauce to say she’s simply not advocating gender norms that have traditionally supported the patriarchy and contributed to the normative claim that women are less valuable/competent  than men, and have value only in relation to men.  However, since those gender norms are still widely present in our media and in expectations and self-presentation of young women, this is no small thing.

Indeed, Palin is not so much offering a critique of selfies as a critique of a particular kind of selfie.  She is advocating a particular kind of self-representation instead.  In this, I suggest she is in keeping with the substance, if not the headline—“Selfies aren’t empowering. They’re a cry for help.”—of a November 2013 piece at Jezbel.com in which Erin Gloria Ryan argued that the vast majority of selfies are “a high tech reflection of the [messed] up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”  What Ryan thinks of as the selfie is clearly a particular kind of self-representation, and not the sort that Rachel Simons called a positive self-esteem builder for girls:

“…if selfies were typically jubilant post-achievement photos snapped by women proud of what they’d accomplished, then Simmons’ assertion that selfies are “tiny pulse(s) of girl pride” would be apt. But the typical selfie is not taken by women who have just completed Iron Man Triathlons or finally finished reading Infinite Jest (caption: Me N DFW 4 eva! XOXO #blessed #reading #smart #rip); selfies don’t typically contain job offer letters, successful grant applications, their face in front of a gorgeously rendered still life the woman drew by hand. They’re literally just pictures of a woman’s face not talking. Further, self-taken digital portraits are typically posted on social media, ostensibly with the intent of getting people to respond to them — that’s what social media is. In that respect, selfies aren’t expressions of pride, but rather calls for affirmation…  Young women take selfies because they don’t derive their sense of worth from themselves, they rely on others to bestow their self-worth on them — just as they’ve been taught.

 Palin and Ryan seem to agree that the way self-representation often occurs in selfies is not necessarily good for the women who do it.

In a certain sense, I agree. Continue reading

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(The Making Of) On Being Female

We have been continually thrilled to have Ali Vlahos as our Women’s Studies Graduate Assistant this year.  Ali will graduate with her M.A. in Creative Writing this Spring, and her contribution to our blog reveals the ways that her sensibilities as a writer and as a feminist merge to create a form of activism that is equally informed by language, politics, and performance.  Here, she not only shares some of her work with us, bust demonstrates the ways in which audiences–Women’s Studies 200 students, incarcerated young men, and, ultimately, blog readers–come together to give a text shape and meaning.

On Being Female (see below) is a spoken word piece that came into existence because of two things: a Women’s Studies Graduate Teaching Assistantship and Writing the Wrongs.  As the Women’s Studies GA, I assist with Women’s Studies 200.  Writing the Wrongs is a creative writing workshop I began with incarcerated youth at an all-male facility.

Both of these things have teaching component, both combine passions of mine (gender studies, creative writing, and social justice), and both challenge social and societal norms (and I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak.)  It didn’t occur to me that my Women’s Studies GA and Writing the Wrongs could be disparate and distinctly different things until I began encountering questions.  What’s it like working with only male offenders? and As a woman, aren’t you apprehensive about working with all-male criminals?  (by the way, I have a hard time thinking of the young men I work with as “criminals”) and Don’t you ever worry what could happen in the facility? and What safety precautions are there for you being around prisoners? 

Curiously, very few people asked me about what types of things embody Women’s Studies and/or about my job as the WMST GA.  It seemed my work with the juveniles was the more interesting thing I do.

I saw no reason to separate the work I was doing at the university and at the youth facility.  I spoke to the WMST students about Writing the Wrongs and vice versa.  During a particularly rambunctious workshop at the facility whereby the Volunteer Coordinator (a male, and not just any male but one who used to be a professional NFL player, you know, the stereotype of male masculinity with his muscles on top of muscles, sparkling white teeth, and an impeccable sense of style) had to reprimand the raucous group of young men after I had already told them to calm down.  Three times.  As I left the facility, the Volunteer Coordinator said to me, “You know the only reason they act out like this is because you’re female.”

Let me make it clear that the Volunteer Coordinator is my ally; he supports the work I do with the youths and understands the importance of allowing the youths to have a voice.  The VC is the champion of Writing the Wrongs.  He also coaches the youths on life skills and encourages they young men to make informed life decisions.  Together, we have spoken to the guys about healthy relationships, about male masculinity and it’s correlation to violence and how it’s influenced the choices they’ve made (especially in relation to their incarceration), and about gender stereotypes and how problematic they can be.

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When Feminists Mentor

Today’s post comes from Sociology Professor Georgiann Davis.  Generally, our writers choose their own topics, but I urged Georgiann to consider writing about mentorship, since her own mentor, Prof. Barbara Risman, will speak on campus later this month, and because Georgiann is an incredible mentor herself: when I walk by her office in Peck Hall, Georgiann is usually in an earnest conversation with one of her students or colleagues, and it seems her door is literally and figuratively always open.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Georgiann’s post today is itself an act of mentorship: in sharing her own stories, she reminds us that we are never committed to a single identity and she demonstrates how the faith and support of someone we admire can challenge us to take the risks necessary for our own growth.

I left school when I was twelve years old—that is I dropped out. This may come as a surprise to many who know me today as Dr. Georgiann Davis. I kept this piece of my ongoing story secret for a long time because I was ashamed by it. Dropping out of school isn’t exactly something to celebrate. Society doesn’t look fondly on “delinquent” dropouts (never mind the fact that I was fairly popular with my peers and teachers and had great grades). Very few people in the U.S. drop out of school. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, only 3.1% of students in grades 10-12 drop out without completing high school.[1] While I could write an autobiography about why I left middle school that I (biasedly!) think would be interesting to read, I’d rather share how the incredible feminist mentorship I received over the years helped me become Dr. Georgiann Davis.

After I earned my general education development (GED) certificate in October of 1998, I enrolled in my local community college. My goal was to get a two-year degree in radiography and work as an x-ray technologist. I was working in my local hospital’s film room. As you might imagine, I interacted with a lot of physicians, none of whom knew about my limited formal educational background. One doctor asked me why I wasn’t in school; I’m not sure why it felt safe to be honest with her but it did (I usually would lie and tell folks I was home-schooled because I hated school). Fighting back tears, I shared everything with this radiologist. I will never forget her insight: “Your past informs your future; it doesn’t dictate it.” She encouraged me to get my GED, so I registered for the test and somewhat shockingly passed without much preparation. I’m not sure if the radiologist would self-identify as a feminist, but she certainly did mentor me in a feminist fashion.

Georgiann1

My aspirations of being an x-ray technologist didn’t last for long. Before I was allowed to begin my community college’s x-ray program, I needed to take several general education courses. Because of my educational history, I was placed into remedial math (I now teach social statistics at the college level, go figure!) and remedial writing (I am currently writing my first book, go figure!). I also signed up for survey of health careers, introduction to elementary education, and introduction to sociology. I was scared. Aside from taking the GED test, I hadn’t stepped foot in an educational setting since the seventh grade and there I was a college student. Admittedly, my first semester was quite challenging. I was struggling. Things did get a bit easier when I decided the first week of classes to withdraw from the health careers course. Let’s just say I realized that working in a hospital’s film room with patient records was different than working directly with sick or injured people. I won’t go into details, but I will say that I quickly learned I have a very sensitive stomach.

I was, on the other hand, in love with my sociology class. I was being introduced to sociology by a self-identified feminist sociologist in an environment composed primarily of nontraditional students. I realized that my life was not unique in that setting as many classmates had similar stories. I was hooked. It was then that I decided I wanted to become a feminist sociologist to pursue social justice, and to be able to introduce the sociological imagination to others in the way it had been introduced to me.

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