Today in fauxgressive land, this article, complete with simplistic graphs, makes the dubious claim that women’s happiness decreases with better opportunity. It is yet another in a series of what seems like about seventy bajillion similar pieces earnestly wondering why women are so unhappy, what with the fact that feminism fixed all that pesky inequality, and hinting that maybe feminism really just makes the ladeez miserable. Basically, author Marcus Buckingham points to two findings: women’s unhappiness increases as they get older, and women’s unhappiness has increased over the past thirty years. Men have shown the opposite trends. From this he draws the following:

Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men.

And he just can’t figure out why!

So if it’s not the hours, or the attitudes, and if the inequality of home-work is fast disappearing, where does that leave us?

Let’s assume for a moment that it has actually been conclusively shown that these factors are not linked to happiness in women. And let’s take a stab that gets at one of many reasons life gets harder for women but easier for men with age.

Women are taught to value themselves according to how attractive they are to men. They are also taught to value romantic relationships highly, and to expect that getting married and having babies babies BABIES will make them happy.

How do you think women’s lives mesh with those expectations as they age? I propose: often not very well.

Men, on the other hand, are told to value themselves according to how much money they have.

In general, would you say that men have more or less money as they get older?

Oh! And excuse me Mr. Thousand Pound Gorilla in the corner? Would you say pressure on men to live up to the ridiculous standards of patriarchal masculinity is greater or lesser as they age?

Not surprisingly, becoming invisible and being devalued by society is distressing to most women. I actually look forward to some aspects of it (you can do all sorts of exciting things when no one notices you), but that is because of a lot of conscious thought on my part about what it means to age as a woman in a patriarchal society.

Not surprisingly, life is easier for men when they’re not constantly being asked to “prove” their masculinity, and when they feel they have accomplished the things society expects of them.

I don’t see what this has to do with increased opportunities for women. I really don’t. Do you?

The loss of happiness in women over the past 30 years could seem to have a greater correlation to increased opportunities for women, if you believe that feminism really did win educational and employment opportunities for women without any losses in other areas that impact our quality of life.

However, you may have noticed that there has been a slight rabid backlash to the feminist movement. This backlash has focused in large part on women’s physical appearance. As women’s access to the public sphere has increased, media images of female beauty have become increasingly unattainable, and women have been increasingly encouraged to value themselves according to how sexually pleasing they are to men.

You may also have noticed that this backlash has included a small uptick in crushing pressure to be “perfect” according to wildly different and even contradictory standards.

If you ask me, a more valid study of whether women’s happiness goes down when they have more power, money, and opportunity would not just measure whether women in the U.S. have become happier since the feminist movement, since feminist gains have been uneven and often counterbalanced by losses, and since all kinds of other factors (like how acceptable they feel it is to express unhappiness, and whether they feel they should have lots of opportunities) have an impact on women’s self-reported happiness over time. It would measure whether women in countries that have more power, money, and opportunity are less happy than their counterparts in countries where women have less power, money, and opportunity.

It tuns out that this information is, in fact, available.

Drumroll please.

Women in more gender equal societies like Denmark are generally happier than women in less gender equal societies like Poland, Slovenia, and the Ukraine!

Men in more gender equal societies are also generally happier.

In fact, overall, EVERYONE is happier in more gender equal societies!

But then, I suppose Feminism Makes People Happy wasn’t the headline they were looking for.

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So Self-Righteous

September 13, 2009

I always find it ironic when someone accuses activists of being self-righteous and judgmental. Because, hey, person criticizing and passing judgement on another person’s behavior? By criticizing someone for being self-righteous and judgmental, dontcha think you’re being a little self-righteous? And judgmental?

Despite the fun irony, I do have to recognize there are some serious implications to accusations that people who oppose the status quo are self-righteous. That trope prevents a lot of people from doing social justice work, or calling other people out for their misogyny, racism, heterosexism, etc. They don’t want to be uncool and no fun, so they shut up. They focus on not-self-righteous things, like watching football, or wearing the right American Apparel leg warmers, or reading the New Yorker, or whatever it is not-self-righteous people do.

You know what? Activists are self-righteous. Damn straight. We believe in our personal system of ethics and values, and we try to live up to those values. We take them seriously. I don’t think this is a problem. Because, when you come down to it, anyone who has a meaningful sense of lived morality does the same thing. They really believe what they believe. They think other people should too. There’s nothing wrong with that.

People who don’t have a sense of morality of some kind are generally quite mentally ill, and while they may not be self-righteous, they have other issues that make them a difficult golf buddy.

The only difference between those who oppose the status quo and those who support it is that those who support it are rarely put in a position where they must either accept behavior they feel is unethical or speak out against it. Their values are upheld by all of the institutions and structures around them. They rarely see violations of their ethical code, because their ethical code is dominant. When they do see violations, they can usually be sure that most people will agree with them, and violators will be punished by existing systems.

For instance, most people believe that serial murder is wrong. No one is considered “self-righteous” for saying that serial killers should not do what they’re doing. In fact, a judge at sentencing could give a long-winded, harshly worded speech about why a murderer should not have killed people, and most of us would consider that judge to be giving the murderer the talking to he deserves.

However, most people do not believe that war is wrong. So a pacifist saying that we shouldn’t go to war and kill people will not receive the same social approval as the judge. The pacifist will often be labeled self-righteous, although they really have not done anything different from your average murder denouncer. Even if they’re gentle and respectful and try to express their beliefs in the most loving way possible, people are likely to view them as a little bit sanctimonious. Just ‘cuz they’re challenging the Way Things Are and Always Will Be, and no one is supposed to do that.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to convince other people that your ethical code is worth following. In fact, I think it’s silencing and stifling, and even dangerous, to try to force people to keep their ideas about right and wrong private. We need people to challenge the status quo, and we need to have public conversations about ethics. The more we tell anyone questioning The Way Things Are to shut up because they’re being self-righteous, the less likely we are, as a society, to get ourselves checked when we go off the rails. When we start torturing people, or destroying civil liberties… You see where this is going? We need people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in.

When people get called out on stuff or have their privilege questioned, they get defensive. So they respond with a counterattack, claiming that whoever called them out has some kind of problem that devalues their observation. And anyone who won’t just let it lie when they see harm being done gets labelled “self-righteous,” “judgmental,” and “preachy.”

You know what? Martin Luther King was so preachy he was a damn preacher. There are worse things to be.

Before the Iraq War started, I was at a protest, and a man on the street started yelling at us, totally enraged. I walked up to him and asked, “Why are you so angry?” He was a little shocked that I would approach him calmly instead of yelling back, but he answered that he had been in New York when 9/11 went down. I told him that I was in the city on 9/11 too, and he was even more taken aback. He paused for a second, and then, gently now, told me that I was naive. I was too young to understand. I needed to be “realistic.” There would always be war.

It’s an argument I’ve heard all my life, from all kinds of people, whenever I express disagreement with the status quo. It seems that according to many people, making no effort to reduce the suffering in the world is what constitutes “realism.”

And it’s such a load of bullshit.

The claim that people trying to change something are lacking a sense of “realism” is nothing more than an attempt to shut them down without substantively engaging their arguments, or the changes they are suggesting.

The world changes. People change it. Slavery isn’t legal anymore. There is such a thing as a weekend. I can own property and vote. People fought and bled and died for these things, and it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors and spitting in the faces of our elders to claim that nothing ever changes.

Just as saying that human nature is all evil and dark gives people a handy excuse to act like assholes, saying that change is impossible lets people who are actually being lazy and uncaring pretend that their motivation for apathy is a noble understanding of the “real” truth.

No. If you are not doing something to make the world better, it is not because you’re smarter and more perceptive than all of us poor deluded souls trying to make a difference. It’s because you have chosen not to, despite the fact that things do change. You are responsible for your choice. Do not disown it.

I’ve heard many a hipster tell me that they don’t get involved in anything other than self-indulgent performance art (or building robots, or kickball, or whatever) because signing a petition isn’t going to solve the problem with the environment anyway. And it’s not like anything they do is going to end racism in our lifetimes, anyway. And voting doesn’t matter, anyway.

In other words, if they can’t find one activity that will instantly and completely rid the world of every single bad thing ever, it makes much more sense to spend all of their time on self-involved bullshit.

This lovely little bit of illogic is what writer Paul Loeb has dubbed the “perfect standard,” a common cause of paralysis for people who would otherwise try to improve things in some way. The perfect standard dictates that unless social action is determined to be both lacking in any flaws and perfectly effective in solving the world’s problems, it isn’t worth doing.

So, for example, ANY ATTEMPT TO CHANGE ANYTHING, EVER, is a total waste of time.

The perfect standard’s apathy has a counterpart in an unwillingness to limit activities that harm others, for example by recycling or boycotting businesses known to be socially irresponsible. People will argue that they shouldn’t bother with those things, since harming others is inevitable. I call this the “we might as well eat some babies” approach to life. In other words, if we can’t live without doing ANY harm, we should cause MAXIMUM harm.

Christ on a cracker. Think about the implications of that approach to ethics for two seconds. It makes no more sense than eating delicious babies.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have fun. Have fun! Fun is good! And I do understand that trying to make our little corner of the world better can be exhausting and heartbreaking, and it’s scary to take the risk and believe that you have the power to change things. Because then if you try and you fail… Well, that sucks. But thinking that you have to succeed totally and immediately is just the perfect standard doing its work. The kind of changes progressive people believe in are not going to happen all at once, and they often require a lot of “failed” attempts, which teach the next wave of activists what not to do. You do your best. You let it go. Sometimes the victory is won years after your death. You may never see the results of what you do. But someone, someday is going to be very grateful that you did that work.

And that’s just realistic.

Hysteria

August 21, 2009

The etymology of the word “hysteria” can tell you quite a bit.

Originally a term used by the Greeks, hysteria (from the root “hyster,” meaning “womb”) was thought to be a condition especially likely to affect women who were independent of male control, like nuns and widows—though it could potentially strike any woman. According to the Greeks, Hysteria was caused when a woman’s uterus wandered through her body, pushing on her other organs and causing irrational behavior. The cure was pregnancy, which would weigh the uterus down and keep it in its place.

Huh.

The term resurfaced as a diagnosis in Victorian times, again as an affliction affecting only women. In this case, its cause was considered to be sexual deprivation.

Freud other early psychoanalytic theorists later reclassified hysteria as neurosis, again impacting women, again often having a lot to do with their sexual behavior.

HUH.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear the word hysteria used to describe someone who is being irrational and unreasonable. You may have noticed that it is more commonly used to describe a woman or women.

In particular, it is often used to describe people, usually women people, who are concerned about sexual violence.

HUH.

It is very common for anti-feminist people to call feminists hysterical. Other favored terms include: “irrational,” “unreasonable,” and “oversensitive.”

Would you like to know why I think this is the case?

Here’s why: there is a longstanding cultural tradition of separating  “reason” from “emotion,” and contending that they are vastly different and entirely separable.  The tradition goes on to value reason over emotion.  This tradition contends that emotion makes one unable to consider issues “rationally,” but that some very special individuals are capable of considering issues “objectively” and without emotion.  These individuals are “rational.” Other individuals, who are influenced by their emotions, do not have thoughts worthy of consideration.  They are “emotional,” and not as good.  One cannot be “emotional” and “rational” at the same time, you see.

What’s kind of interesting about this whole fallacy wherein an objective viewpoint supposedly exists and individuals cannot be emotional and rational at the same time is that there are also some long-standing cultural stereotypes about which types of people are most able to be rational.  As it turns out, straight white men are very rational types.  Men of color aren’t as rational, because they tend to be very angry for no good reason.  Queer men aren’t as rational, because they’re kind of like ladies.  Women are the least rational of all, because their uteri are floating around making them crazy.  Science!

So you see, people who really buy into this tend to think that they themselves are rational.  They also tend to think that bad people who disagree with them are emotional and not rational.  And that ladypeople are inevitably emotional and therefore irrational.  So ladypeople who disagree with these upstanding rational individuals are the most emotional of all, so emotional, in fact, that they have crossed over into hysteria.

It’s a very rational argument, if you can think about it objectively.

My Seething Rage

August 20, 2009

My mother used to worry a lot that I’d get pushed around by other kids when I was in grade school, because I’ve always been sort of a gentle soul. When my parents tried to get me to play little league, I picked flowers in the outfield. My high school boyfriend used to affably joke that I would grow up to “save all the puppies and kittens.” I help caterpillars across the street so they don’t get run over.

In short, I’m a huge wuss.

I honestly don’t spend a lot of time being angry. While I have sympathy for activists who think differently about anger, I tend to side with Gandhi on the whole “getting angry at your oppressor only destroys you” thing. When it comes to social justice issues, it’s basically my softie nature, not my anger, that keeps me going. I really love people a lot, and I want them to be happy. That’s why I do this feminism thing.

In fact, feminism has made me a lot less angry at men than many nonfeminist women I know, because it offers an explanation for hurtful patriarchal behaviors that doesn’t assume that men are just acting that way because they’re biologically programmed to be nasty and inconsiderate (and in fact, it has been shown that feminists are less hostile to men than nonfeminists).

Like most feminists, however, I have definitely been accused of being a feminist because I’m “angry.”

I have a few problems with this.

First, it’s an ad hominem attack. Even if I were absolutely full of anger, it would not invalidate my views. Dismissing what I have to say by claiming that I’m experiencing an emotion simply does not follow, logically.

Second, it is perfectly reasonable to be angry about things like sexual assault, partner violence, forced sterilization, forced birth, the wage gap, a lack of decent childcare, hateful media representations of women, getting thrown out of restaurants for breastfeeding, street harassment, the way guys always interrupt women but not other men, and the existence of the bromance as a film genre. There is no reason not to be angry about these things. In fact, many activists feel that anger is a positive motivating force for them, and there once was a very famous feminist who outlined exactly why we should be angry about injustice. I think maybe she had a point!

Finally, the claim that a woman is angry, stated as if it is an accusation, is sexist on its face. It’s a way of attempting to silence her by stating that she is not living up to patriarchal standards of behavior for women in this culture. Studies have documented that women are punished harshly for showing anger. From a very young age, we are expected to be smiley lovey dovey nurturing sugar and spice. NOT angry. Angry women are scary!

This, not incidentally, is one way the culture makes sure women put up with a lot more shit than they should. The word “angry” is thrown around any time a woman simply stands up for herself, as a way of shutting her down.

Ani DiFranco, a musician who was the Bob Dylan of my generation in terms of her lyrical skill, but never got anywhere near the kind of recognition he did for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on but certainly has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a ladyperson, once wrote the following lines—probably very familiar to feminist readers:

I am not an angry girl
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
Every time I say something they find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear
Imagine you’re a girl
Just trying to finally come clean
Knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
And smiling

What Ms. DiFranco is pointing to is the reasonableness of a woman being unhappy that she is treated as subordinate to men in our culture, the fact that women who point out this injustice are often dismissed as unreasonable when it’s really those who hold misogynistic views who should be questioned, and the fact that rejecting patriarchy (angrily or not) is actually a more psychologically healthy response than sucking it up and going along.

Ugh. She is just so angry!

I’m not the funniest person in the world. I’m a little too reserved to be truly hilarious. But I have my moments. I have, at times, been known to successfully engage others in humorous banter. I also smile and laugh quite a bit, compared to your average person. I’d say that I find a lot of things pretty funny. I laugh at most jokes, and I laugh at life.

Why, then, is it so commonly the case that I am accused of having no sense of humor?

Perhaps we can find a clue in the context. You see, it is usually in a very specific context that I am accused of this particular character flaw.

It is when I don’t find something funny because I think it is sexist.

What, exactly, is going on when people accuse feminists of having no sense of humor? It’s a claim that’s clearly factually incorrect. A visit to one of the big feminist blogs on any given day will usually pop up quite a few jokes. And my feminist friends and I joke around all the time. I have this one friend who does the most fantastic white-dude-with-gravely-voice-singing-about-how-hard-life-is impression. You should see it!

Of course, these jokes might not be funny to someone who is not feminist, but…

Wait! I think I’ve hit on something!

It would seem that perhaps an individual’s worldview and culture has an impact on what that person finds funny! Almost as if our sense of humor is an extension of our perspective on things like how we think people should act, what behaviors we find surprising and incongruous (funny), and who is worthy of ridicule.

For instance, have you ever noticed how some people find it funny to ridicule the willful behavior of people who are in positions of power, while others prefer to ridicule the intrinsic nature of people who are in positions of subordination? I’m sure such preferences have little meaning and should be ignored, but I can’t help feeling that the way advocates for the disempowered are so often accused of lacking a sense of humor may have something to do with this fact.

See, I have this wacky, half-baked idea that humor is, as much as anything, an expression of our political views and identities. For example, if someone doesn’t think rape is a big deal, they will probably find rape jokes quite funny. If someone thinks rape is a horrific and all-too-common experience, the mere thought of which sends shivers down their spine and makes them feel vaguely nauseous, they will be less likely to find rape jokes funny.

My wacky theory extends even further: I believe that humor is an extraordinarily common method of maintaining oppressive structures. What could possibly be more effective at silencing someone, at making them an outsider, at establishing them as inferior, than ridicule? Think of a few of the times in your life when you felt most embarrassed and ashamed. How many of them included people laughing at you? Most? All?

We all want to fit in and be respected. There are many situations where ridicule controls people far more effectively than an overt threat of violence ever could.

My theory, which is in no way related to actual experience, also postulates that humor can be amazingly effective at begging the question* of whether oppressive structures/beliefs make sense. For example, let’s consider this enjoyable piece by Bill Maher, a man who I’ve lovingly come to consider the most pathologically misogynist dude in all of comedy, and maybe all the world:

Is it actually true that women talk more than men? Is it bad to talk? Is it good to want everyone to “shut the hell up?” Is it true that women ask their male partners to check in more than men ask their female partners to do so? Is it true that a relationship where people check in with each other regularly is problematic? Does the phrase “pussywhipped” represent an actual undesirable condition, or is it a way of shaming men who respect their female partners into ignoring the desires of their partner and doing what other men want them to do instead? Bill Maher doesn’t care! Men are good! Women are annoying! Yay, comedy!

According to the logic of my wild-eyed speculation, it seems that actually, resisting dominant ideas about what is considered funny and creating a counternarrative about such things would be an extremely important aspect of building effective liberation movements for oppressed groups.

It would also seem that silencing this counternarrative would be an essential task for those invested in maintaining existing structures of domination.

Oh, there I go again. Taking everything so seriously!

*A very boring point: I know a lot of people misuse the phrase “begging a question.” This may lead some readers to be confused when they read this sentence. Here’s an explanation of the correct usage.