Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Training To Be Batman's Wife. Gender Lessons From Children's Clothing.


Here are two t-shirt stories about gender.  They cropped up almost simultaneously.

 The first one, by Melissa at Shakesville, is about t-shirts licensed and approved by DC comics:

On the left, we've got a men's shirt that depicts a scene inspired by Superman/Wonder Woman, which, you'll remember, was a romance themed title developed last year to appeal to women since why would we ever want to read a comic book that's not about kissing? (edit: it's actually from a cover of Justice League 12, however, because DC does sure love their crossovers) The text reads "Score! Superman does it again!"...

Also, Wonder Woman's a lasso-less "it" now, we guess. Yeah, that's why her arm's all weird at the bottom of the shirt; she's supposed to be lassoing Superman in the picture. But why present a powerful female superhero using one of her trademark symbols as a marker of sexual agency when you can instead present her as a stiff, rigid board to be scored upon?

On the right is a shirt from the juniors department of Walmart, which says "Training to be Batman's," and then "wife" in a different more stereotypically feminine font. It's a little known fact, but you are not allowed to spell the word "wife" in any font other than cursive.


The second story, from Canada, is pretty similar.  It is about onesies for infants for sale at Target:

Baby onesies at a Target store that label little boys as future superheroes and little girls as their dating partners has sparked online outrage after two University of Waterloo professors called attention to their message. 
...
Target Canada responded to questions from CBC News about the pyjamas in an email on Tuesday.
Company spokeswoman Kalynn Crump replied: "Target strives to treat all our guests with respect, and it is never our intent to offend anyone. We appreciate the feedback we’ve received and will continue to listen to our guests to ensure we offer merchandise that appeals to, and reflects, our diverse guest population.”
When asked if Target would remove the onesies from the shelves, Crump said Target didn't "have any plans to make adjustments to our assortment at this time."




There's the Superman S-symbol in both, but the message is a bit different for boy and girl babies.

The topic isn't the most important in the world but worth thinking about.  For example, try to imagine what would happen if we did a gender-reversal on those messages.  I doubt a single t-shirt or onesie would be sold.  Second, note the way the female messages are preparation for the female sexual role, even though these pieces of clothing are meant for children.  

But I get that these are jokes intended for the people reading the messages in the clothes, and most of those are adults.  Even the different script for the word "wife" in the upper picture is because the idea is that the reader will get surprised by that addition:  "So she's in training to be Batman?  No, but Batman's wife!  Heh."

In a way t-shirts and onesies of this type are training tools. 





What's Fun To Watch Today


On the net, that is.  You might begin with this Republican voter ad aimed at women.  It's utterly hilarious:



Note the equation between picking a bridegroom (or a bridal dress!) and picking a candidate, the attempt to make the debate a mother-daughter one and the idea that political issues are like the cost of a wedding dress. I love it because it shows how very hard someone thought about how to interest women in the Republican Party, then the light bulb: weddings!

Besides, I thought that prospective brides are supposed to be Bridezillas who want to the most expensive wedding dress possible?  At least that's the danger with the stereotyping the Republican Party does here.

To balance out that one, Nadia Kamil does feminist burlesque

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Girl Brains And Boy Brains, Take #456789. By Dr. Michael Mosley


The BBC Horizons had a program on this idea:

Do you have a "male" or "female" brain? Are there really significant brain differences between the sexes and if so, do these differences matter? BBC Horizon investigates.
When it comes to the tricky and explosive question of how much, if at all, male and female behaviour is driven by brain differences, Professor Alice Roberts and I sit on different sides of the fence.
I believe that our brains, like our bodies, are shaped by exposure to hormones in the womb and this may help explain why males tend to do better at some tasks (3D rotation), while women tend to do better at others (empathy skills), although there is, of course, an awful lot of overlap and social pressure involved.
Alice, on the other hand, thinks these differences are largely spurious, the result of how the tests are carried out. She worries that such claims may discourage girls from going into science.

The debate between Roberts and Mosley may have been quite good, even wonderful, but I'm not writing about that since I haven't watched it.  Instead, I want to write about this advertisement for it by Michael Mosley.  Or call it priming?

Yes, it's priming.  We are introduced to Mosley's arguments in great detail, from 3D rotation to empathy skills to, later, specific pieces of research.  We are not introduced to any of Roberts' arguments, except in the general sense that she believes the differences (all of them?) are largely spurious, based on how the tests are carried out, and worries about girls being discouraged from going into science.  Thus, we get one set of arguments in great detail and nothing but vague noises from the other set of arguments.  Perhaps this is understandable.  Mosley obviously wants to present his point of view as the correct one.  But it's important to note how the story is told.

This is particularly important, because the two pieces of research Mosley particularly mentions are pretty controversial ones!  He loves the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (the PS to this post is a good explanation why Baron-Cohen's basic theory about what distinguishes the female brain from the male brain is problematic) and he loves the Ingalhalikar et al. brain imaging study (which I covered in some detail here and its reception here and here).  To pick those two as examples of solid and sound research on biological sex differences in the brain is a bit shocking.

Mosley likes Baron-Cohen's idea of the female brain as mainly good at empathizing:  understanding the emotions of others and relating to them,  and the male brain as mainly good at systemizing:  the analysis, creation and understanding of systems.  If that sounds a bit like the old argument that women are emotional and men are rational, well, it is in the same family.  There's no earthly reason why a person cannot be both empathizing and systemizing or (almost) neither*, yet the basic theory  treats the two as competing and sex-linked characteristics.  And that's why men are more likely to be nerds:

One of the scientists who has most strongly influenced my beliefs is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University.
He argues that, broadly speaking, there are two different "brain types". There are empathisers, who are good at identifying how other people are thinking or feeling, and there are systemisers, people who are more interested in trying to take apart and analyse systems i.e. people who are a bit nerdy.
We are all a mix of the two, but most of us are more one than the other. Men tend to sit more along the systemising end of the spectrum, women at the empathising end, though there are plenty of exceptions.

Got it?  If not, you should go back and re-read the end of this post.  Then notice that Mosley, too, interprets empathizing and systemizing as mostly mutually exclusive characteristics.

And created by biology, especially by the amount of testosterone a fetus may have experienced during pregnancy:

But is this simply the product of social conditioning? Professor Baron-Cohen thinks not, that exposure to different levels of hormones in the womb can influence the brain and subsequent behavour. Some of his most intriguing findings have come from on-going research into a large group of children who have been followed from before they were born.
At around 16 weeks gestation, the children's mothers had an amniocentesis test, which involves collecting samples of the fluid that bathes the womb. The researchers measured levels of testosterone in the fluid and have since discovered intriguing links between those levels and behaviour.
"The higher the child's pre-natal testosterone" Professor Baron-Cohen told me, "the slower they were to develop socially. They showed, for example, less eye contact at their first birthday". They also had a smaller vocabulary when they were toddlers and showed less empathy when they were primary school age.
On the other hand he found that being exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb seems to enhance some spatial abilities. "Children with higher levels of pre-natal testosterone were faster to find specific shapes hidden within an overall design."


Monday, September 29, 2014

On US Infant Mortality


Why is the US infant mortality rate so high?  The international rankings place US somewhere in the vicinity of Croatia, despite the US being about three times as wealthy.  A new study by Alice Chen, Emily Oster and Heidi Williams uses microdata to compare the US with Finland (picked for having very low infant mortality rates) and Austria (picked for both representing the average in Europe and for data comparability). 

The study suggests a greater role for post-neonatal mortality (deaths in months one to  twelve) than earlier studies which focused more on neonatal mortality rates.  It  concludes that the post-neonatal disadvantage of the US is driven:
almost exclusively by excess inequality in the US: infants born to white, college-educated, married US mothers have similar mortality to advantaged women in Europe. Our results suggest that high mortality in less advantaged groups in the postneonatal period is an important contributor to the US infant mortality disadvantage.
In other words, the fates of infants born to less advantaged women in Austria and Finland are better, on average, than the fates of infants born to similarly less advantaged women in the US. 

Why that is the case isn't completely clear from the study.  For example, identifying the causes of death after the neonatal period is helpful, but not completely so.  My guess is that part of the difference lies in the fact that the less advantaged groups in the US are less likely to have low-cost access to health care or a permanent relationship with a health care provider. 

The concrete recommendation the authors of the study make focus on the idea of home nurse visits for new parents:

Identifying particular policies which could be eff ective is beyond the scope of this paper and is an area that deserves more research attention. One policy worth mentioning is home nurse visits. Both Finland and Austria, along with much of the rest of Europe, have policies which bring nurses or other health professionals to visit parents and infants at home. These visits combine well-baby checkups with caregiver advice and support. While such small scale programs exist in the US, they are far from universal, although provisions of the A ffordable Care Act will expand them to some extent. 
Randomized evaluations of such programs in the US have shown evidence of mortality reductions, notably from causes of death we identify as important such as SIDS and accidents.
At least in Finland (I'm not sure about Austria) these operate in conjunction with the ante-natal clinics, as part of a process which begins before the woman gives birth and continues with checkups by specialized nurses, first at the home of the family and later at the same clinics that were used for ante-natal care.  Put in another way, all this is an example of accessible health care.  












Friday, September 26, 2014

Here Be Dragons. What US Conservatives Think About US Liberals.


"Here Be Dragons" is what was assumed to have been written on the old maps when the mapmaker didn't know anything about some far distant area.  I always loved that optimistic statement!  The dragons must be somewhere, after all.  But it looks as if the only place where that sentence truly was written was on one old globe.

I was reminded of those lovely dragons when I read this article about how American conservatives view American liberals.  Two snippets:

Here’s the view from the Heritage Foundation: Liberalism creates self-indulgent, licentious hedonists willing to cede every other kind of freedom to an increasingly authoritarian government.
“Give up your economic freedom, give up your political freedom, and you will be rewarded with license,” said Heritage’s David Azerrad, describing the reigning philosophy of the left. “It’s all sex all the time. It’s not just the sex itself—it’s the permission to indulge.”
And:

But liberalism isn’t just about pleasure-seeking and moral relativity: The oppressive nature of liberal government has crept into our popular culture as well, warns Voegeli, senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books. Coupled with the demand for tolerance and self-actualization is the growing tyranny of political correctness.
According to liberals’ worldview, “humans are too psychologically frail to maintain their self-esteem when faced with harsh criticism,” he said.
“Fairness then requires protection against not only sticks and stones, but against names, dirty looks, inappropriate laughter, white privilege, and ‘mansplaining’ that could generate a feeling of the inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect people’s hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone,” Voegeli concluded.
Nothing less than the future of freedom as we know it is at stake. “What will then be left of what Madison called ‘the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, the spirit which nourishes freedom and in return is nourished by it’?” wondered Azerrad.
The emphasis is mine.

This is fascinating stuff.  I never realized that I'm fleeing freedom and have lost my manly and vigilant spirit or that I was getting so much hot sex that my ability to take any kind of criticism has been sucked out of me. 

Then, of course, my map would have the dragons in a completely different place, because freedom for Mr. Azerrad or Mr. Voegeli means something rather different than freedom for women or racial minorities or poor people etc.  Indeed, descriptions of the above type must imagine what dragons might look like, what they might eat, how they might fly, how they might procreate and so on.  When that information is lacking, make assumptions!

And the same could go in reverse.  Knowing that hampers my gleeful writing here.  But at least I have learned something about a few on the US right edge:  They think liberals are willing to give up everything for sex* (even though my following various events suggests that newsworthy sexual escapades and even sexual crimes are certainly at least as common among Republican politicians and clergy as they are among Democratic politicians and clergy, and probably more so) and they seem to have a very specific definition of "freedom."

I'm not  sure what "freedom" means in Republicanese,  but it might mean power in the hands of a particular group of people and not in the hands of other groups of people.  The latter groups are expected to meekly accept their places in the hierarchy, led by others and managed by conservative religions.

That came across all Marxist!  Gulp.  I'm not a Marxist, though he did ask some of the right questions.  In fact, I'm probably not even a liberal, what with a dearth of sexual escapades and no obvious desire to have the whole world run by governments (or the corporations or the various religious bosses).

The liberal dragons drawn on those conservative maps are weird stereotypes.  The same would be equally true of conservative dragons drawn on liberal maps, or at least somewhat true.  That is sad, because the lack of proper communication is one reason for the infected politics of this country today.

-----
*This one makes me a bit confused.  Notice that it's the political right which is the home of those who write diatribes (content warning for those two) about the need for women to take responsibility for becoming victims of sexual violence and notice that the concerns about sexual violence are portrayed as political correctness gone amok.  Then there's the idea that the alleged victims of sexual violence exaggerate, label bad sex as rape and so on.  As far as I can tell all this comes from rather righty places.

So the definition of who is entitled to licentiousness and/or safety might matter in understanding the concerns in the quote.






The Fox Guys Just Can't Help Themselves


Which this story shows about two Fox news male hosts on "The Five:"

Kimberly Guilfoyle took a moment to salute Major Mariam Al Mansouri, who reportedly led her country's airstrikes Monday against the Islamic State. Guilfoyle noted how rich it was that an Arab woman was leading the charge against the militant group, given that women aren't even allowed to drive in some countries in the region.
"The problem is after she bombed it she couldn't park it," co-host Greg Gutfield quipped. "I salute her."
"Would that be considered boobs on the ground or no?" Eric Bolling chimed in.
Miraculous comments!  To combine a situation where women aren't allowed to be in most societal roles with old stale sexist stereotypes and lewd comments...  I wonder how the brains of Eric and Greg actually operate, especially given that all this is about aerial attacks against a war-torn country and against a group which enslaves women, children and old people, after killing their prime age male relatives,  and which has recently put to death a female human rights lawyer.

This isn't even about inappropriateness or tone-deafness.  I truly can't imagine how someone would  come up with those particular jokes in that context. 

How does the internal conversation go:  "Well, those Muslim countries really are awful about the way they treat women.  But let's insert a few jokes about how even crack pilots can't park if they are female and about the fact that women have bigger breasts than men!  That way we show...what?  That Greg and Eric really do understand why the Saudis don't let women drive cars?"

The Answer to the Universe And Everything: Blackcurrant Juice


Is not 42.  It's blackcurrant juice.  Well, blackcurrant juice is as good an answer as any I can think of.  It also happens to be what I'm drinking right now.

That paragraph is offered as a humble parable of some of what's going on in our public conversations.

Take the Emma Watson post I wrote below.  I kept it back for a few days, I used multiple respectable sources and so on.  But then we learn that the site itself is a hoax site, except that it's a hoax site in a deeper sense than wanting to, say, cause havoc among the 4Chan lot.  It's a hoax about a hoax about a hoax?  And I'm not at all sure who it is intended to hurt or if that even matters.  It's so meta that there's nowhere further out to go, no way to wrap everything into an even larger cloak of opinions, emotions, static and clickbaits, no way to dance even faster on that narrow fence between reality and something with pink clowns and frilly monsters.

Now that I got that off my chest let's see if I can write anything real.








Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Emma Watson, the UN Speech And Nude Pictures. The Art of Silencing.


Lewis's Law:

The comments thread on any article about feminism justifies feminism
That's about right, based on my experience of too many hours spent on reading the comments threads.  Not all the comments are just plain misogynists but a very large percentage of them are.  Then there are the comments about feminism as a cancer on the body politics, something more dangerous than wars and epidemics and extreme Islamist takeover fears (though at least the feminazis get properly squashed by that last nightmare).

That's the background to the most recent story about Emma Watson who played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies.*  She gave a speech to the United Nations.  The speech is well worth reading in its entirety, because though it's not deep in research or in information it makes the case for more need for women's and men's rights in this world quite well.

What happened next?  This:  The merry boyz at the hacker site 4Chan decided to show Emma who really is the boss in this world by informing all of us* that nude pictures of her would soon be made available.  The justification seems to be in her daring to give that speech.  As a deleted comment at Gawker supposedly stated: 
“She makes stupid feminist speeches at UN, and now her nudes will be online,” one comment allegedly read, adding that the images are set to appear in under five days.
And 

The site threatening Watson was greeted with glee on 4chan and Reddit, where commenters explicitly stated their hope that the threats would force her to abandon her feminist campaigning. "If only her nudes got leaked and she had the load on her face. Her feminism kick would be over," a commenter wrote. "If this is true her recent feminism rally is going to be shutdown hard," wrote another. "Feminism," one 4chan user opined, "is a growing cancer."

There you have it.  Now the 4Chan and Reddit brigades are not representative of all mankind (used properly, for once!).  But we don't need very many people willing to smear someone's reputation on the Internet or to pass on false rumors about her death or to threaten her with death or rape to make public speaking on certain topics pretty expensive for women like Emma Watson.

Indeed, the only deeper motivation for all that I see is the idea of silencing such voices.  If they only were silent!  Mary Beard has written extensively on the possibility that the Internet harassment of women and of feminists is  about silencing people by making the costs of speaking very high.

A shallower analysis suggests that the idea of nude pictures of women is somehow the proper punishment to feminist speech.  A nude woman cannot be feminist, nudity is bad, it takes away a "good" woman's reputation.  But why would the boys (and girls?) at 4Chan think so?

My guess is that some of them do think so, because women are either whores or Madonnas and as we know Virgin Mary never said anything except "your will shall be done" and whores are raucous.  So silence is what good women should cover themselves with.

On the other hand, the move to publish nude pictures of Emma Watson (whether they exist or not) is also to declare public ownership of her sexuality.  Any man can ogle at her and she cannot stop them!

The private and public ownership models of women's sexuality are used side by side on this old earth.  Thus, we get the nude pictures of women who are deemed to be publicly owned and we get the color-coded burqas in Mosul under the Islamic State for married and unmarried women.  So that everyone knows which ones have not yet been doled out to their proper private owners and are therefore available?

I'm probably over-analyzing the reasons that makes a bunch of teenaged boyz feel powerful on the net.  But even if they are teenagers who haven't really thought all this through very carefully the outcomes are the same:  A breach in that public/private ownership wall, the hope that someone's reputation can be ground to shards under the big boots, the unthinking equation of equal gender rights with feminazi thuggery and so on.

For note that the response from those who seem to disagree with Watson's message is not to discuss the message, to debate it, to suggest alternatives or different angles.  It's just to punish Watson for speaking.  It also suggests a vast lack of information about how the majority of women on this earth live and how limited their rights are and how little they are respected as anything but fertility resources.  An American privileged point for misogyny.

This could be a storm in the teacup in the sense that we cannot tell how common the views and behaviors of the 4Chan people are.  But that's the general problem with Internet debates, with what is stressed and with what slides by almost unnoticed.

For different reactions to these events, check out here and here.
----
*Added later:  Even if the website threatening to release the Emma Watson nude pictures is itself a hoax as this article argues, the  analysis in this post applies to public speech by women on the net.





Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Things To Read 9/23/14. On The Angry-Black-Woman Meme, What Americans Deem Morally Acceptable, Gaming and Misogyny And Other Topics


This poor post puts together all my little ideas which were not watered enough to become sturdy trees on this here blog.  Also a few smaller items which I found interesting.  Much of this is depressing stuff but not all, partly because several items are about something that wouldn't even have been talked about a generation ago.  Now enough people get enraged and the conversation happens.


1.  The discussion following this article by Alessandra Stanley on Shonda Rhimes.  Here are two takes on it:  Melissa Harris-Perry does a reversal of the "angry black woman" meme and Margaret Sullivan addresses general issues with the review.  The piece also has a response from Stanley.

2.  Some interesting statistical and survey pieces (yes, Virginia, statistics can be delicious and exciting!).  First, this piece on the disappearing US economic middle class is worth reading and thinking about.  I haven't spent enough time figuring out if everything relevant is included but the statistics show that something changed around year 2000.

Second, the responses to this Gallup survey about the ethics and morality of various items is also interesting.  The differences between what Democrats, Independents and Republicans find most revolting is very informative:
Republicans, independents, and Democrats have differing views of the morality of several issues. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to consider issues like divorce, gambling, medical research using embryos, and having a baby outside of wedlock morally acceptable. But Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see wearing fur, the death penalty, and medical testing on animals as morally acceptable. Independents tend to fall in the middle of the two groups.
At least the vast majority of Americans finds birth control morally AOK.  That's worth thinking about in the context of the Hobby Lobby decision and the suggestion (here) that the religious right will not be satisfied until it is their religious right to ban other people from accessing birth control.

Third, the question of the world population growth isn't as clear-cut as earlier rounds of predictions implied.  Because resource availability is linked with potential future wars and climate change and because population growth makes such wars more likely knowing about this altered prediction matters.

3.  The summer of rage in the gaming industry:  If you know nothing about this topic you might wish to begin with this calm article in the Boston Globe. Slightly less calm takes are available in large numbers.  (You might wish to think before you read those last two links.  They are pretty full of generalized misogyny.) 

Though I haven't followed the summer of rage in any great detail (lying on the grass and watching the patterns white clouds make against the blue sky is much better for one's mental health), the way things are going offers an interesting natural experiment on what happens when girls try to enter the extremist type of boys' tree-house.  It's more complicated than that, but the essential aspect of the anger is of the "barbarians are coming" type.

4.  Finally, the way New Zeeland celebrates women's suffrage.



Friday, September 19, 2014

Deciphering the Sexual Violence Views of Rush Limbaugh


Today's mood:  Grumpy

If my blog writing was based on paper sources, I would now be invisible behind skyscraper-tall piles of paper and books.  That's because so many huge and important issues are happening at the same time and each and every one demands real research, real thinking and gives me such migraines that I end up hiding under the covers.  For instance, my internal judge demands that I write on intimate partner violence, on the ethical codes of American football, on women and the Islamic State, on police power and its relation to race and sex of the people the police lords over.

So what's stopping me?  Not that this interests anyone else but it's my blog, after all, and the question interests me.  Partly what stops me is the speed with which What We Argue About changes.  By the time I've done the research and enter the room to give my speech everybody else has moved on to the bar a couple of streets away.  The work is somewhat pointless.  But the alternative (of blurting stuff out quickly) doesn't seem very pointy, either.

The other reason it seems pointless is that very wide public debates on issues such as intimate partner violence tend not to lead to sharper conclusions or agreements.  The same arguments fly past each other.  Indeed, confusion often increases, and I have a natural allergy (scales itching and falling off) to circular debates of no real intention to clarify anything.

So that's why you are getting an analysis of Rush Limbaugh's views on rape and intimate partner violence.  It's not because our Rush matters very much anymore and it's not because he is like the puppet sitting in the lap of some manipulator, made to blurt out the most extreme arguments so that other arguments look less extreme or so that his audience can feel that wonderful elation hearing their own thoughts firmly stated.

It's because what Rush says does show us one extreme stand in the debates about sexual violence, and that is concentrated in two of his utterances.