Where (a lot of) Feminists Go Wrong

Where I knowingly commit the unforgivable act of “mansplaining“.

Where do many feminists, like Eldest Daughter (ED), who I love dearly even when she repeatedly makes fun of me, go wrong? They think women’s equality rests on assertive demonstrations of personal attributes most often associated with males. This is understandable because traditional notions of femininity are extremely limiting, the problem though is the masculine characteristics Millennial feminists want to appropriate—such as physical and sexual aggression and promiscuity, profane/vulgar behavior, and insatiability more generally—aren’t socially redeeming. Of course they’re free to emulate the worst of male behavior, but we’re worse off for it.

My daughters and their friends celebrated the 2011 film Bridesmaids as groundbreaking and watched it until they could cite the dialogue. In essence they were saying, “Because Animal House has nothing on us, men have nothing on us.” Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars of out 4, and opined that Bridesmaids “seems to be a more or less deliberate attempt to cross the Chick Flick with the Raunch Comedy. It definitely proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity. . . .”

Before ED fires off an exasperated, impassioned reply to this post, let me tell you what she’s thinking right now. This is a rare skill of mine, knowing what the members of my family are going to say before they say it. It may be a uniquely male skill some describe as “arrogance”, but I like to think of it as foresight. ED would say, “Debauchery aside father, the fact that you’re writing about Bridesmaids and Animal House together means we’re breaking down the historic, sexist notion that women aren’t as funny as men! So what if vulgarity helps create long overdue opportunities for women in the comedy world! The end justifies the means!” And of course she’d attach a funny gif for good measure because that’s how she rolls.

Wikipedia lists gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity as traditionally feminine traits.

Given these traditional feminine traits, better that young men be more feminine, than young women more masculine. Ideally, overtime, these more socially redeeming traits would come to be seen as gender neutral. Better that all of us be more gentle, empathetic, and sensitive.

This “We can be hella masculine” approach to gender equity is painfully evident on television shows like Comedy Central’s Broad City (BC). When it comes to sleeping around, swearing, and doing drugs, the two female stars are up to any male duo’s challenge. Again, ED would say, “No surprise, but you’re missing the point again father! There’s one more show on television starring two female comedians than there was three years ago!” Always with the exclamation marks.

ED’s frustration has now reached a breaking point, so she’s stopped reading, meaning I can write even more freely about one of her favorite television shows. I admit, despite BC’s vacuous foundation, it is among the most funny shows on television—subjectively based upon how many times I laugh aloud during an episode. Also worth noting, my critique of it as a cultural artifact that allegedly symbolizes New Feminism extends well beyond my negative view of its “we’re every bit as masculine as you” dead-end.

In actuality, because I said she wasn’t, ED is still reading. Here’s what she’s thinking now. “How did I end up with the most Puritan of fathers in the whole U S of A?!” But dearest ED, my critique isn’t based on morality. Abbie’s and Ilana’s embrace of mindless masculinity almost always translates into victimless crimes. So what if they get high or have random sex. The problem with the show is its nihilism, meaning it never raises interesting questions or addresses big ideas about how we should live. Put differently, it leaves no mark on my intellect or soul. ED, “Isn’t it enough just to be laugh out loud funny?! That’s no small feat!” Yes it is if all they’re motivated by is what they can charge advertisers for commercial breaks.

Wikipedia on BC:

The Wall Street Journal referred to the show as “Sneak Attack Feminism.” Critic Megan Angelo quotes Abbi Jacobson, main star of Comedy Central’s Broad City; “If you watch one of our episodes, there’s not a big message, but if you watch all of them, I think, they’re empowering to women.”

By which Jacobson means, “Good news my young feminist sistas, now you can act a male fool too.”

As this insightful analysis from Lili Loofbourow (LL) suggests (thanks ED), television is improving because of women’s increasingly influential contributions. LL convincingly argues that more and more female writers and producers are infusing shows with distinctive, intelligent sensibilities, thus demonstrating the limits of “we’re as masculine” programming.

One example of improved programming is the incredibly creative and hilarious comedy Portlandia which contrasts nicely with BC. Portlandia’s setting and cast are every bit as urban, diverse, and edgy as BC’s, but a typical two or three-minute skit on Portlandia pokes more fun at our modern selves and raises more interesting questions about the limits of materialism, the superficiality of popular trends, and the idiosyncrasies of modern life than several twenty-two minute episodes of BC.

Wrapping up, want to laugh, watch BC; want to think and laugh, watch Portlandia. Either way raise children—female, male, something in between—to be equally gentle, empathetic, and sensitive.

Postscript—Broad City interviews Sleater-Kinney.

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.

Bet You Can’t Read This and Still Believe There’s “Justice For All”

From the LA Times. Knives, Death, a Famous Name.

Odd isn’t it that in the U.S. we require schoolchildren to say a Pledge of Allegiance, but we don’t help them think through its contents to decide if in fact they believe some or all of what they mindlessly word. If we’re going to continue that practice, maybe we should update it so that it ends “and justice for well-to-do families with lots of social capital”.

Some day I hope to live in a country where Fred, Kathy, and Brigida Santos are equal to Fabian Nunez, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Antonio Villaraigosa.

Eschew the South

According to conservative pundits, liberals like President Obama and myself don’t really like the United States. “Love it or leave it!” they ignorantly insist. They want everyone to believe they’re the true Americans because they mindlessly subscribe to American Exceptionalism. Nevermind that our independence resulted from intense dissent born of the freedom of speech the Constitution enshrines.

One of the things I like most about the U.S. is distinct regional differences compliments of its great expanse.

As viewed from the upper atmosphere, I live in the very uppermost left hand corner of the country. And sadly, moms lives in the very bottommost right hand corner. I’m writing this at 36,000′, halfway home on my most recent cross-country voyage. I’ve made this trans-continental trip probably 30+ times since my parents’ long ago move to the Peninsula (known to some as Florida). As a result, I’m declaring myself a Southeastern U.S. expert. Meaning I’m qualified to make extreme generalizations about it even if Southerners take offense.

For example, the conventional wisdom that Southerners are more hospitable is something they like to tell themselves probably to feel better about how inhospitable life can be “down South”. Take the Southerner in the Enterprise car rental office today on Kennedy Boulevard right next to the University of Tampa. “You KNOW you guys need some fuckin’ better help in here don’t you?!”

That warm Southern hospitality is also extended whenever you dare cross a busy street. As I stood at intersection after intersection this past week, speeding drivers shot me angry looks, upset that eventually I’d step foot onto their road. Sunday afternoon, at one intersection, loose wires peered out of the street light so there was no way to trigger the cross walk. After five minutes I moved to the middle of the block to eliminate turning cars from the total amount of sheet metal I had to dodge. Then I did my Usain Bolt impersonation, and now, the humble blog readers rejoice that I (barely) lived to write another day.

Have you heard the joke about the Southeastern city planner? That’s the joke. An oxymoron if there ever was one. Most egregious, there are more Cuba-loving liberal Democrats in Florida than there are bike lane miles. My advice, if you sometimes enjoy walking outdoors or riding a bike, eschew the South. In fact, I hereby announce an Eschew the South movement until pedestrians and cyclists are acknowledged to be fully human. Bumper stickers and t-shirts are now available.

Then there’s the stuff I can’t pin on Neolithic Age city planning–hellish heat and humidity. One of the best things about the upper lefthand corner is our built in air conditioning. Our politics are liberal, but our temps wonderfully moderate. Even on the rare warm summer day, temps plummet at dusk. We also get to run and cycle up and down hilly, even mountainous trails and roads.

I’m going to skip the planned paragraph about the preponderance of fatty and fried Southern food at the risk of being mistaken for a self-absorbed foodie.

This began innocently enough as an appreciation of regional differences, but somehow morphed into an unprovoked regional rant. Fair enough if Southerners hold it against the PNW.

Long story short, I could easily live without the SE, but not Mother Dear. So the diagonal pilgrimages will continue despite their deleterious effect on my life expectancy.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.