Author Archives: flowersk

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.


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”

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?

“Tips for Women” Facebook Group and the Issue of Self Defense

I’ve been thinking a lot about rape lately, primarily because of the recent UW *timely warning* email (Incidentally, I sat by a frat boy in Odegaard a few days ago who was apparently around that girl the night of the alleged assault, but that is for another post). Most recently, I just received an invitation from an acquaintance to a facebook group called “tips for all women… please join… and pass on.” This group is relevant to a few feminist issues, including rape prevention, and the pros and cons of self defense. To summarize its contents, this group consists of several tips for women on how to avoid murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, etc. For example, “ALWAYS take the elevator instead of the stairs. Stairwells are horrible places to be alone and the perfect crime spot,” and if this advice isn’t enough, and you are attacked, just remember this “tip from Tae Kwon Do : The elbow is the strongest point on your body.If you are close enough to use it, do!”

Before I go into why I find this group so problematic, I should start by acknowledging that this group is definitely not like…the worst thing ever. If this group successfuly lives up to its goal of preventing women from being raped, sweet.

But that last statement brings me to why this group annoys me: there is no mention anywhere of preventing attempts at rape, nor is there any mention of men being responsible for not raping people. Just like the recent email from UW, this group puts all the responsiblity of rape prevention on women’s shoulders. Furthermore, this group ignores the fact that the majority of sexual abuse occurs at the hands of people the rape survivors know. People reading this website would have no idea that they are much more likely to be raped by an acquaintance, friend, family member, partner, etc., than by a random creeper lurking in a deserted stairwell.

While this site may do some short term good, imagine how much bigger and more valuable an impact would be possible if parents, educators, and facebook-group-makers spent the 5-10 minutes it takes to read this site educating women about acquaintance rape and men about the value of using an enthusiastic “yes!” as the definition of consent rather than just the absence of a “no!”

Besides the fact that these tips are not relevant to most cases of rape because they fixate on stranger rape, another issue with these tips is that they encourage violence (the tae kwon do thing comes to mind). Self defense classes are still pretty controversial, judging by a recent live chat conversation on Feministing between Jaclyn Friedman and Miriam Perez (from 3:42-3:53), and for good reason. On the plus side, as Jaclyn points out, self defense classes can be empowering for women, and they can help prevent rape in some cases. On the other hand, though, self defense “uses violence,” and is too individualistic, according to Miriam, and it reinforces tired stereotypes of women as gatekeepers who have to constantly fight off men. At this point, someone could point out that we shouldn’t have to choose between funding/promoting self defense classes and working to dismantle the culture that permits rape, but because time and funding are limited, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to debate which rape prevention strategy is more valuable. I tend to agree with Miriam, but what do other people think? And what about this group and the UW warning email in general-should they be applauded at all for trying to prevent rape in their own way, or are they just doing more harm than good?