Bringing Feminism to Science

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In the latter half of the 20th century, feminists have begun to critique, analyze and ultimately restructure the role of women within the world of science.  Feminists are now asking: is science inherently sexist?

Although gender hierarchy within the field has led to a substantial lack of recognition, many contributions made by women have been extremely invaluable and highly influential. Feminist historians are attempting to bring such women and their achievements to light.

Looking back, women scientists have had a number of struggles – from acceptance as members in their field to their objectification as specimens of study.  To begin, few women had the opportunity to attend universities to receive formal education and yet those who had that privilege were still often excluded.  One such example was Rosalind Franklin, a PhD graduate known for creating clear and visible DNA x-rays.  Her contribution was immense and helped advance many other studies.  Nevertheless, her work remained under-respected and inadequately acknowledged by her male science peers.

In terms of women as scientific specimens, many sexist hypotheses were borne out of theories that were based on differentiations between gender intellect and physicality.  While women were more prone to mental or physical illnesses that triggered irrational, emotionally-based behavior, these same studies deemed men stronger and more intelligent.  Some of the famous contributors to such theories include Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Martin Charcot and T.H. Huxley.  It has been argued that such theories kept women in the role of house-wives and domestic laborers rather than participants of cultural institutions.

It could safely be said that most feminists would agree that science is fundamentally sexist to at least some degree, whether it is seen an inherent quality of science or something that has been fostered as a result of being a male-dominated practice.  What feminists don’t agree on, however, is how women should advance in the direction of science: do we adhere to traditional practices and infuse a feminist influence or do we attempt to develop an entirely new science altogether?

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Housework: Who’s Doing More?

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Housework: an expected responsibility of many wives in the home yet an unprofitable enterprise within society.  With the cost of living continually rising in America, it is not uncommon for a majority of women to work full-time outside of the home.  Yet studies reveal that women are still performing a majority of the housework despite men’s increased participation which, in fact, decreases after marriage and even more after kids.  When men do clean house, rather than considering it a shared responsibility, most of us still see it as merely “helping”.

Housework Statistics
nsf.gov

A blog post by Skeptikai, “Are men happier When They Share the Housework?”, comes to the conclusion that it’s not the actual housework that makes men happy, but the positive effects it has on a relationship, as it leads to more sex and less nagging.

So if this is truly the case, why does the duty of housework still fall primarily on women?

The supposed “feminine nature” of housework reifies the sexual division of labor and has become a permanent, undervalued feature of the social structure.  I support this statement with two reasons; its lack of recognition as contributing to economic progress and the invisibility of its performance.

Women doing housework may not be included into the labor market, but contribute by supporting a large and demanding, consumer-driven market of cleaning products.  Advertisements have a number of ways to reach the domestic woman with products that will, supposedly, make her clean quicker, faster and easier, thus making her job almost seem pleasurable and non-demanding.  Yet there’s a chance these products are creating even more work, finding more things to need cleaning and creating higher standards.

My second point brings up the invisibility of the work.  Most of us see the home as a place of relaxation and privacy rather than a place of round-the-clock, exploited labor.  Seeing it this way may be somewhat of a reach in contemporary America, but housework has, in fact, remained under-valued and unacknowledged for the primary reason that its performed in a private space.

Overall, not all women see housework as a chore and not all men are resistant to do it.  Many women of the younger generation agree on the expectation that their partner participates in not only the cleaning, but the cooking, the grocery shopping and just about anything that was excluded to the women’s role during our Mother’s and Grandmother’s generation.  On the other side of it, men agree on the expectation that women participate financially.  Both domestic  and market labor have definitely come much closer to equality in recent times, but there is more progress yet to be made.

Check out the debate over women doing housework after marriage on this FoxNews clip:

What do you think? Are men putting in their equal share of housework with mowing and other so-called “man” chores?

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Politics & Women’s Health

Planned Parenthood Rally in Washington state last year (2011)

Women’s health has been a strong political focus recently leading up to the Presidential election.  The first Presidential debate, in fact, included such discussion.  Obama, although known to support women’s health rights, accused Planned Parenthood of violating women’s health law  while Romney remained true to his political party roots by supporting anti-choice as well as threaten to overturn both Roe vs. Wade and Planned Parenthood.

Legislative attacks on women have been an endless, back and forth battle among men in politics, thrusting their power and control over women’s reproductive rights from pregnancy prevention to the actual birthing process.  Nowhere in-between these debates have human rights been an actual part of the discussion.  Beyond choosing a President who represents the lesser of two evils when it comes to women’s health, our control over the issue appears inconsequential.

Such issues are consistently decided within a male circle, based on religious, conservative, liberal or moral values in addition to government spending concerns.  Yet, when do women actually come into the debate, not only as representatives but as the key subject of women’s health?  Rather than consider government spending, let’s consider the amount of individual spending on healthcare between men and women and the blatant disparity.  I am, in fact, being punished by the system for simply being a woman.

As an environmentalist, I strongly believe that women’s liberation has a direct impact on birth rates and make for a better society.  Options such as oral contraceptives and abortions should be an individual choice without being a financial burden.  During the Women’s Liberation Movement, however, women began to question whether or not these options we call liberties are merely just another form of patriarchy.  I go back and forth between what I think is liberating myself, but at the end of the day, I find choice to be the ultimate liberation.

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Have Women Become the New Trick in ‘Trick or Treat’?

A sexy Nun for Halloween
Google Images

What was once thought of as a kid’s holiday with spooky decorations and creative costumes, Halloween has begun to be much more known for its lack of originality and sexualization of women.  It comes as no surprise that America has capitalized on the concept.  Nearly every commercial store window advertising Halloween costumes involve  a fetish-ized image of a woman as a sexy nurse or naughty devil with bare mid-rifs, pushed-up breasts and stripper-like shoes to match.

A sexy cop for Halloween
Google Images

While I refuse taking any blame from society at large and companies who take advantage of the growing capital in what they know is an easy sell, I can’t help but want to question my fellow women for supporting the business.  Is the pressure to be sexy on Halloween that severe?  Have we really bought into the idea that our sexuality is somehow a form of empowerment?  Yet, as more and more of such costumes are made and as they quickly take over the tradition of Halloween, how will young girls withstand the pressure?  Grade school is hardly the time to resist societal pressures or gender stereotypes.

It’s an easy argument to make that this transformation of Halloween costumes from creative to sexy will and already have negatively influenced young girl’s images of themselves and their bodies.  The direct message that these costumes are telling them is that sexy is trendy and fun.  But the effects of those message are far more troubling, enforcing the binary of gender and what it means to be a woman.

A sexy fire-woman for Halloween
Google Images

A recent article on Jezebel.com under the headline, Pepperdine Student Paper Publishes Insane Dangers of Dressing Like a Slut on Halloween, echos an all too familiar mentality of victim blame.  In short, a Christian college warned female students of the dangers and risks of dressing too sexy on Halloween, giving advice such as “make sure to keep strong men around you who you know and trust to ward off unwanted admirers”.  To say the least, the student paper comments and advice was anything less than offensive.

Halloween articles on the sexualization of women are actually not all that uncommon as I shuffle through various online articles.  The concern of not only feminists but parents, highlight the need to bring the phenomena of sexy costumes into focus and understand the lasting effects it is having on young girls.  Halloween should be an escape from female, body objectification and yet it has only enforced it by making it into a contemporary tradition.

A sexy Harry Potter for Halloween
Google Images

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How America Has Capitalized on the Concept of Obesity

An image of a “fat” Barbie via Flickr Images

The attack on obesity has been capitalized by the American society in the typical ways you would expect by a country built on the means of high production and mass consumption.  Their success lies in the misleading relationship between the powers of society and those who are controlled by it, providing the misconception that citizens have become empowered by the knowledge provided to them and thus held responsible for the policing of oneself.  Citizens are led to believe that any personal characteristics that deviate from the societal norm, is therefore an individual failure and lack of self-discipline.  But where does the responsibility of culture and society fit in and why is it being overlooked?

War rhetoric such as the ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on poverty’, or in this case, the ‘war on obesity’, signals to the people a state of urgency and concern.  In this particular context, it is a direct reference to the health of the individuals at risk to the effects of obesity and has inspired an equally extreme response through invasive, high-risk procedures such as WLS (Weight Loss Surgery), food replacements, extreme dieting and over-the-top exercise regimes for severe weight loss seen on shows such as The Biggest Loser.   Such modes of discipline, considered an eating disorder for skinny people, is considered self-control by fat people, a point well-made by Melissa Campbell  in an engaging class discussion on fat activism.

Yet, that is not the only dichotomy and contradiction we see in America’s attack on obesity.  What’s equally important to consider here is the disproportionate effect this has on women and their bodies in comparison to that of men.  From diet food to surgery, weight loss ads further capitalize on the bodily insecurities of women in a society obsessed with beauty.  Images consistently represent a narrowly defined conception of physical beauty and what that implies.  A beautiful woman is desired, successful, charismatic and fun while a fat woman personifies any and everything opposite to that, excluded from the multiple benefits of being skinny in American society.

Fat men, however, are represented by media and society at large in a much more loose and accepted manner, though stereotyped nonetheless.  Fat men are also likely to find more avenues of acceptance, such as the funny guy who makes jokes about his obsession with food.  Take for instance, Doug’s character in the King of Queens (see this clip I provided from YouTube) ; a beautiful, thin wife and her fat, funny, teddy-bear of a husband.  It is unlikely we would see a reverse of this relationship represented anywhere in media.  Fat men are seen indulging in HungryMan dinners while only skinny women are seen indulging in low-calories meal bars.

Ultimately, it is not enough to be considered skinny by societal standards but additionally beautiful, a point I brought up in a previous blog entitled, Beauty: From the Inside – Out, in which I criticized a comparison between the diet/health of two women based on their physical attractiveness.

By providing ineffectual means by which citizens can take control of their weight, American society continues to profit off of individual ‘failures’ without assuming even the slightest accountability.  As mentioned by Oullette and Hay in their article, Makeover Television, governmentality and the good citizen, widespread internalization of the system and individual acknowledgement of obesity as a problem allows for the ‘reinvention of government’.  By doing so, reality TV and other media avenues are represented as providing a public service, simultaneously and ironically profiting off of the failure of it’s own system.

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Health: From the Inside-Out

A health and beauty comparison taken from pintrest.com

The above picture was posted on Pintrest.com, a virtual bulletin board in which people can post images, ideas, tips or general interests and share them with others.  You can keep track of your interests by creating various theme boards from “craft ideas” to “gluten-free recipes” to organize your interests.  If you like a picture or idea that was “pinned” by someone else, you can re-share it through a number of cyber, social mediums such as Twitter or e-mail.

The image and accompanying script above comparing the so-called beauty of two individuals based on their lifestyles, has already been “liked” five times and re-pinned by at least one individual.  In the image on the left, a woman with tousled hair and a face without make-up is said to be a TV guru who advocates for a healthy-conscious lifestyle including diet and exercise.  The woman on the right who is assumed to be of the same age, is a TV cook who eats just about everything but is wearing a low-cut dress, her hair styled and make-up done.  The punchline of the entire image reads: I REST MY CASE!

I think there are two very important discourses here that co-exist, a feminist one and a health one.  Western culture, being a highly visual-focused society, consistently uses a wrong point of reference to define “good and bad health”.  We see this most prominently in our attack on obesity.  We make assumptions that those who are considered  over-weight are leading un-healthy lifestyles, eating the wrong foods and lacking in physical activity, when in reality, our arguments to these claims can hardly be backed up by substantial research or facts.

According to this image, health leads to beauty.  In reality, I think we all know how far from the truth that statement is but with advertising, these concepts are rarely implied without the other.  Take for instance lite yogurt advertisements or  issues of Women’s Health magazine.  In addition to being “fit” and therefore in “good health”, the woman is generally represented by the typical image we recognize in media to be considered beautiful.  Therefore, according to widespread images within media, “good health” does equate to beauty.  These images tell viewers that if you eat the right things and exercise regularly, the skinny, beautiful woman inside of you will be revealed.

Yogurt advertisement of a thin, “beautiful” woman.

A cover of Women’s Health Magazine taken from Google Images

A cover of Women’s Health Magazine taken from Google Images

So in hindsight, the initial image that sparked this blog post does support my argument in some aspect, that health should not be measured by external observations.  The image, in essence, contradicts the message we are getting from magazines such as Women’s Health, that skinny means healthy and desirable.  However, the feminist discourse within this that makes the image seem problematic, is in the comparison of beauty with health, wether it in disagreement or agreement with such body-image stigmas.  Clearly the creator of this image and caption is questioning what media is telling us, yet the pressure for women to look beautiful is still brought up in the comparison.  I still wonder what it was about the image that generated five “likes”, (although I admit that is quite an insignificant number in cyber-world) and what exactly was the message they implied from it.  I have yet to be convinced it is anything positive.

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Reality TV & The Transformation of Identity of the Self

Exposed bodies labeled by social stereotypes
Google Images

The cultural economy of entertainment and advertising has transformed the identity of the self by creating ideal and normative images or behaviors through governmentality and biopower, simultaneously targeting marginalized groups that lie outside the narrow boundaries of such definitions.  From makeover television such as Work Out or The Biggest Loser to beauty and fitness advertising, citizens have become active viewers by inadvertently deflecting societal problems into individual ones.  In doing so, the transformation of identity becomes a form of empowerment and self-regulation where media becomes our source of knowledge and inspiration while choice and control lies exclusively within the self.

As a result of cheap production and high viewer ratings, reality TV has become the most pervasive form of entertainment within media and an increasingly influential source for creating normative images.  For example, Extreme Makeover, a reality show that takes men and women who deviate from the societal norm and reshapes their physical appearance through a number of extreme surgeries.  The narrative for each show runs through a similar background story in which the individual begins unhappy with the way the look and their lives in general and through the full body reconstruction, takes the initiative, through self-control and effort, to redirect their destinies and thus lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Additionally, a number of feminist critiques can be found within reality shows and with this show in particular.  In  Extreme Makeover, there is an uneven representation of men and women with women being the high majority.  The shows emphasis on the “correct” weight is equally important in the transformations of both genders, but in the case of women alone, the final appearance of the women lie within narrow definitions of femininity influenced by the patriarchal ideal; arched eyebrows, slim figure, full chest, narrow nose, long hair.

These same feminist images are found in media advertising and is not usually separate from normative feminine behavior.  For example, most hair product commercials depict a slim, culturally-defined “beautiful” woman who not only has the long silky hair we as women are expected to desire, but undergoes a confidence transformation through her hair from dullness and unhappiness to vibrant and playful.  Her body movements are gentle, delicate and poised.

Reality TV goes beyond constructing the ideal citizen through image alone but through productive behavior as well seen in shows such as Intervention, where subjects transform from unproductive failures of society to “healthy” and contributing citizens.  As Jesse Daniels points out in her analysis of the show in Intervention: Reality TV, Whiteness, and Narratives of Addiction, issues of race create an additional discourse within the normative behaviors of culture defined within the context of whiteness similar to feminine norms of beauty in the context of patriarchal ideals.  Similar to deviation from “healthy” weight or the hegemonic feminine appearance, refusal or failure to exercise the opportunity to gain self-control represents an individual lack of responsibility that evades the accountability of society as a whole.

The transformation of the identity of the self as a response to the cultural economy of entertainment and advertising extends beyond physical and internal discourses of what is “healthy” illustrated through the reality shows mentioned above.  Within transformations of the identity of self, standards are rooted in the normative social constructions of race and gender in Western society, defining deviations according to culturally-defined ideals.  Media has influenced the viewers to the point of internalization and acceptance of our “unhealthy” or deviant selves and as a result, taken the heat off of social and cultural builders of our society who help create this phenomenon of self nonacceptance and instead, allow others to benefit from it.  Self-regulation becomes a solution that begins and ends with the individual.  But we should not be asking what we as individuals can transform but what society can transform to enhance the lives of the people on a much broader scale.

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