Gender roles/heteronormativity: Sea creature edition

In the few months I have been a volunteer for the Seattle Aquarium, I have realized that this place perpetuates and teaches gender roles. Of course, so do most places. The three reasons why I think the aquarium’s situation is worthy of discussion are 1) humans are projecting our ideas about gender roles onto animals 2) impressionable kids are the ones absorbing these ideas 3) I am guilty of most of the behaviors I’m about to criticize. Before I go further, I also want to acknowledge that by “our ideas about gender roles” I am limiting myself to the ideas from the culture that most aquarium visitors and I share  (American, white, middle class,  culturally Christian, etc.) and am not claiming that all people construct gender roles in the same way.

My job at the Aquarium is to stand near exhibits and answer people’s questions. During these conversations, I’ve noticed that people (including me) consistently address some animals as “she” and some as “he”, regardless of the animal’s actual sex. For example, there is one large, dark red octopus that tries to escape the tank, splashes onlookers with water, and constantly harassed a wolf eel that briefly had the misfortune of sharing the tank. The conversations surrounding this animal are along these lines: “What does he eat?” “Look at his suction cups, [child’s name]!” “He must weigh 60 pounds!” etc. This octopus is actually a female. Conversely, elsewhere there is a much smaller, more delicate octopus who usually has pale pink skin. This one is graceful when it glides around, although it  prefers to stuff itself into a tiny hole in a corner. I’m not sure what the sex of this octopus is, but I do know that everyone says to their child, “Do you see her back in that hole?” “She’s so shy!” etc. Even I find myself saying “she doesn’t like to come out very often” and “she can change her skin color, although she usually sticks with pink.” Most of the time I realize what I’ve said right after it comes out of my mouth, and I feel bad for reinforcing some kid’s idea that boys are active while girls like pink/meek. To give a few more examples, the aforementioned wolf eel is always a “he”, even though it is actually female, sharks are “he”s, some tropical fish are “she”s, etc.

Some invertebrates don’t even have a sex, or they can switch back and forth. In these cases, for example with starfish, jellyfish, etc., the default pronoun seems to be “he”. I think this phenomenon shows that we still think of male as the default sex, and females as the “other.” So, even if an animal doesn’t have a face, much less a backbone, we still cannot even begin to discuss an animal before giving it a gender, and that gender is male.

On a related note, not only do the visitors and I automatically view these animals through a gendered lens, but there is a heteronormative lens in use as well. For example, sea otters like to hold hands in pairs. When I see this cute sight, my mind is automatically like “couple! boy and girl! romantic!” even though I know in the more thoughtful part of my brain that sea otters hang out in single sex groups…so these pairings are actually two female otters or two male otters. Otters of the same sex swim close together and hold hands, but a male/female pair would never hold hands, let alone float in close proximity to one another unless they were mating. (side note: you don’t need to see this video to understand my point…but if you want to see something adorable…watch this).

So far, I think I have painted the aquarium, its visitors, and myself pretty negatively, but this isn’t the whole story. I still think that aquariums and zoos can help open people’s eyes: for every conversation where I catch myself calling that dainty octupus a “she”, there are other conversations where I point out that male seahorses are the ones who incubate the eggs, that the feisty octopus and the intimidating wolf eel are females, that many animals in the touch tank are asexual or hermaphroditic, that I’m not sure whether the black tipped reef sharks are male or female, etc. I hope that rather than enforcing gender roles and heteronormativity by projecting them onto animals, I can complicate these stereotypes such that visitors leave the aquarium with more nuanced views…but it is hard to break old habits.

My Short Skirt

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to wear dresses and skirts. Poufy ones, skinny ones, every color of the rainbow – and, in general, the shorter the better. Now, before anyone makes any sort of “oh, you must wear short skirts because you WANT attention” remarks, I would like to make it EXTREMELY clear that this is not the case. I wear skirts because I love my body, and in particular I love my legs. I love the feel of having sunshine on my bare skin, and I love how skirts look on me. I feel good when I wear a skirt – much better and much more confident than when I’m wearing a pair of pants. They are so much more flattering on my body and so much easier to move in than a pair of jeans. At least, that’s my opinion. I really could care less about what other people think of my appearance.

That being said, I cannot express how utterly sick and tired I am of getting catcalled and harassed by men on the street who seem to think that it’s their right to make obscene comments on my appearance, the way I walk, and what they would like to do to me. What, do they expect me to lie down and spread my legs in the air for them because I chose to wear something that makes me feel good? No thanks – I actually have self-respect. Continue reading

Amazon

Apparently, Amazon is taking away the sales rankings from many GLBT and feminist books…sketch. I’ve heard/read some conflicting information from Amazon: some cs reps say that “adult” content is being targeted (but adult content doesn’t include any of these books, apparently), while other say it’s a just a technical glitch. Now, the first search result for “homosexuality” is A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. It’ll be interesting to see how this issue plays out.

via jezebel

or, if you have twitter, go to the search page and type in “amazonfail”

Sexism In Class

Yesterday was the first day of my Poli Sci class’s quiz section. I walked through the door actually quite excited – my previous two classes that day had been wonderful and I was hoping that this quiz section would be just as great. Sadly, it wasn’t. During section the TA made some extremely inappropriate comments that were derogatory to women. My response was to write a letter to my professor and cc the head of the department:

Dear Professor [blank],

I am a Junior LSJ major currently enrolled in your Poli Sci 201 class trying get the pre-reqs done to be able to double major. Last Fall I took your LSJ 320 class, which is in part why I am writing you this e-mail.

I have just home from my quiz section with [name removed], and I am utterly appalled at the conduct he exhibited during section. The majority of the quiz section was devoted to informing us that we would be unable to understand any of the material without his guidance because of supposedly lacking high school educations. This assumes that everyone in the class is a freshman lacking in any understanding of political theory and moreover that those students who might have some sort of background in philosophy or political theory are too stupid to understand the coursework – assumptions made by [name removed] without him even bothering to ask our names, school years, or majors, information which would obviously prove these assumptions to be incorrect. It also seemed as if [name removed] main goal was not actually to provide further insight into the coursework; his language during the quiz section was peppered with vague sports references and a lot of swearing seemingly geared toward impressing the younger male members of the class with how ‘cool’ he is. I do not object to swearing as a general rule and often indulge in the practice myself in my private life, but I think it is extremely inappropriate when almost every sentence coming from a TA or professor’s mouth contains at least one four letter word, if not several.

The most disturbing issue that occurred during quiz section, however, was the level of misogyny exhibited by [name removed]. I have been working with Planned Parenthood since I was 16 and been called all manner of names by anti-Planned Parenthood demonstrators and even by the aides to District 4 legislators when I lobbied them in 2007, yet I have never felt so marginalized as I did in quiz section today. [Name removed] referred to multiple negative issues we may encounter during the course of this class as bitches, even telling us that we needed to “smack around the text” in order to “make it our bitch” after giving a disclaimer to the men in the class that they shouldn’t hit women because it “makes [us] angry.” He also told the class Nietzsche said that “men should go to a women with a whip in hand” and that this is what we should do to our imaginations because even though “Nietzsche never got laid except for one time with his sister,” he got published. As the daughter of a domestic abuse victim, I am offended, appalled, and extremely angry that I was subjected to this type of domestic violence marginalization, especially as it came from a person who is supposed to be helping me learn about political theories dealing with the concepts of justice and equality.

Having been in your Politics and Law of International Human Rights course, I know that you are not someone who would condone this sort of behavior from one of his TAs. Even if there is nothing else you can do, please transfer me to Section AE as it is the only other section which fits with my class schedule and I do not desire to remain in a quiz section where my opinion is not valued because of my gender and supposed lack of intelligence.

My professor responded promptly and is handling the matter in a satisfactory manner, but in his response he also informed me that my TA has been awarded a coveted teaching award which was given to him by his students. This makes me wonder. The language and references he used during lecture were clearly geared towards the younger males of the class – the more they laughed, the more vulgar and demeaning his language became. I wonder if he was like this in previous courses. I wonder if he received his award because he made the guys in his classes laugh at the expense of the women in his classes. I wonder if any woman in any of his classes has reported him before, or if they have felt too intimidated to do so. The class is an entry level pre-requisite for the Political Science major – I would not be surprised if he had done this before and freshman women in his class who were unsure of their own authority just let him slide. What would you have done?

Feminist Media

I was recently looking at the front page of this blog, and my eyes fell on the “MORE FEMINISM!” section. Of the resources listed, I read Feministing and Womanist Musings regularly, but I’m not as familiar with the others. I’m not sure who put together that list of links (Kearstyn, I’m guessing?), but seeing that list made me think about my own list of my favorite feminist stuff: 

I’m curious as to what other people’s favorite feminist media is? Also, my list is very skewed towards online media, with just two books-which magazines/newspapers/books/etc. am I missing out on?

Also, I noticed that the authors of some of the media above might not even consider their work feminist. For example, I don’t think that Reviving Ophelia ever mentions feminism. Similarly, I don’t think that Racialicious and Jezebel have promoting/discussing feminism as their main goal. Do other people find insights into feminism in unexpected places?

The Vagina Is A Work Of Art

I love it when comedians are pro-vagina. It definitely proves that feminists in fact do have a sense of humor.

Vagina Monoblogging: week late edition

Last week, I went to see the University of Washington production of the Vagina Monologues.  It was my first time seeing it, and I came away with mixed feelings.  Some thoughts:

  • everyone past puberty, but especially hetersexuals, needs to read/see the Hair Monologue.
  • every hetersexual male needs to read/see the Bob Monologue – and take notes.
  • Angry Vagina Monologue rocks my world.  “Mostly, my vagina wants to stop being angry.”  Amen.
  • all of that said, the Monologues – or at least the subset performed by this cast – were disappointingly Caucasian, Western, and heterocentric.
  • I find the centering of identity around one’s genitalia to be odd and a bit disturbing.  It may be my male privilege/ignorance showing through, and I would gladly be corrected if that’s the case, but a woman is more than her vagina, and if feels reductive to identify her so strongly with it.  I’m all for changing social attitudes towards vaginae from current fear/revulsion to the respect and admiration they merit; I just think VM goes a bit overboard in this respect, with results that aren’t entirely feminist.  Thoughts from those possessing a vagina?

And then there’s the female genital mutilation monologue.  On one hand, I’m glad it’s in there.  It needs to be in there.  Without it, the Monologues would be far less authentic, far less relevant, and far less powerful.  People need to know that 3 million girls and women each year are sexually mutilated.  If anything, we need to be reminded of that fact far more often.

On the other hand  –  and these are personal issues, not universal reasons for not seeing things like the Vagina Monologues  –  I struggle frequently with nihilism and despair.  When I hear or read about the systematic rape and torture of women, I wonder why I’m even bothering to fight.  What can one person do in the face of such rabid hate?  In the end, I keep fighting, because that’s just who I am.  I come from a culture that prizes fighting for what you believe in, whether or not you have a hope of winning.  And I believe in Justice.  I just wish I could believe in the possibility of a just society.