Tag Archives: biology

The Blood of Carrie: A Feminist Review of the Re-Make

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Screenshot_1Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order — as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now — when 41 percent of Americans report being born again — was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters,Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers — who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening — and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation — coming into her power — which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end — as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed — but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her — and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Holly L. Derr, MFA, is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist FandomFor more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwoThree, and Four at the Ms. Magazine blog.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine.  Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

50 Years Later: Is the Birth Control Pill Patriarchy-Compliant?

If I have one thing to say about Holly Grigg-Spall’s new book, Sweetening the Pill: How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control, it’s that it brings together ideas in creative ways and comes out with conclusions that are new to me.

The book is an interrogation of the popularity of hormonal birth control in the U.S.  In one argument, Grigg-Spall begins with the fact that women’s bodies are a fraught topic. For hundreds of years, the female body has been offered as proof of women’s inferiority to men.  Feminists have had two options: (1) embrace biological difference and claim equality based on essential femaleness or (2) reject difference and claim equality based on sameness.

Largely, Grigg-Spall argues, the latter has won out as the dominant feminist strategy. Accordingly, all things uniquely female become suspect; they are possible traitors to the cause.  This includes ovulation, menstruation, and the mild mood swings that tend to accompany them (men have equivalent mood swings, by the way, they’re just daily and seasonal instead of monthly-ish).

Hormonal birth control, then, can be seen as a way to eliminate some of the things about us that make us distinctly “female.”  “Science is making us better,” the message goes.  By getting rid of our supposedly feminine frailties, “we are [supposedly] becoming better humans…”  A quick look at birth control pill advertising reveals that this goes far beyond preventing pregnancy.  Commercials frequently claim other benefits that conform to socio-cultural expectations for women: reduced PMS, clearer skin, and bigger breasts.  This Yaz commercial, for example, claims that the pill also cures acne, irritability, moodiness, anxiety, appetite, headaches, fatigue, and bloating.

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To add insult to injury, Grigg-Spall notes, advertising then frames consumption of the pill as liberation.  In this commercial for Seasonique, the pharmaceutical company positions itself as women’s answer to a mysterious oppressor.  “Who says?” is repeated a full eight times.

Others have criticized Grigg-Spall for, among other things, essentializing femaleness: utilizing  that strategy for equality that embraces women’s difference from men and asks others to do so as well.

I’m coming down on the side of “huh!?”  The Pill made an immeasurable difference for women when it was introduced as the first effective, female-controlled birth control method.  There’s no doubt about that.  Her book asks us whether our designation of The Pill as a holy pillar of women’s equality still applies today.  I think it’s worth thinking about.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

A Sweet and a Sad Story of Animal Nurture

I recently across two examples of cross-species education.  Both illustrate that what we often consider instinctual must also often be learned, revealing that nature and nurture are not competitive forces, but deeply interconnected.  The first is adorable to the point of making me cry from laughter, the second is so sad I can hardly stand it.

Here’s the first.  A sheep tries to teach a young bull how to head butt.  Words don’t do justice to the care and patience shown by this teacher.

Perhaps the bull just isn’t ever going to understand, but the fact that the sheep seems to understand that the bull doesn’t understand, and then thinks of an idea of how to fix that, is amazing to me.  Presumably, he would take as much care with a young sheep who would be predispositioned for head-butting, but might still benefit from some instruction.

Here’s the second.  Remember the movie Free Willy, where the captive killer whale is freed by a little boy?  Well, in true Hollywood irony, the whale that played Willy, Keiko, wasn’t freed at the end of the movie, of course.

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After the movie was released in 1993, however, people joined in a movement to free him.  After 22 years in captivity, humans — who count as animals in this story — spent a decade and 20 million dollars trying to rehabilitate him to the wild, attempting to teach him how to feed himself and bond with wild whales.  He continued to seek out humans, even after he was left to fend for himself, and died in 2003 from pneumonia.

There are lots of lessons to take from this story.  One is the importance of nurture in making us what nature intended us to be.  Keiko was a social individual who learned how to be a captive killer whale.  Given the opportunity, he never could be the wild killer whale he once had the potential to be.  Or, at least, we’ll never know if he could.

Whenever we talk about human biological imperatives, we should remember the patient sheep and the friendly killer whale.  We need each other to become human, and we can become human in many different ways, depending on what is demanded of us.  Nature never works alone. Without each other, we simply don’t become recognizably human at all — as one of the worst cases of child neglect taught us only too well — regardless of our biological potential.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Academics, Emotions, and the Head Shot

Fun fact: because the right side of the brain is more involved in processing emotions than the left and each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body, the left side of the face is generally more expressive.

We humans must know this on some unconscious level, because self-portraits (or “selfies“) tend to feature the left side of the face more often than the right. In fact, real portraits — you know, painted by artists — show the same bias going all the way back to the 16th century.

I borrow these fascinating insights from a blog post by Owen Churches, a psychologist who wanted to know if all types of people leaned towards showing their emotional side, or if there were exceptions.  He and his colleagues decided to look at academics, collecting 5,829 head shots appearing on professors’ faculty pages.  He found that English and Psychology professors were most likely to pose in ways that drew attention to the left side of their face, but Engineering professors did not.  This, Churches writes, “suggests that these hard scientists seek to display themselves to the world as the unemotional clichés of popular myth.”

So, I thought I’d do a little experiment.  I collected the head shots of everyone in the sociology department at my college, Occidental, and everyone in the physics department (we don’t have engineering, alas). Trend holds!

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What’s Causing the Rise in Obesity? Everything.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Gender Binary in the Brain

Elana M. sent along a fascinating study revealing the gender binary in our brains.  The researchers, Homayoun Javadi and Natalie Wee, asked subjects to look at a series of gendered objects — either (a) or (b) — and then judge the masculinity or femininity of a series of androgynous faces.  Gender mattered, but not how you might think.

Condition 1:1
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Condition 2:

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The findings were counter-intuitive to me.  Subjects who saw the feminine objects judged the faces to be more masculine, and vice versa for subjects who saw the masculine objects.  The researchers interpret this as an “adaptation effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which “looking at something for a long time makes you more likely to see its opposite” (source).  For example if you look at a white screen after looking at a red one for a while, the white screen will appear green (red’s opposite).  Or, if you look at lines moving right for a while and then look at static lines, they will appear to move left.

Javadi and Wee’s findings suggest that our brains give gender to both objects and people and that we place masculinity and femininity in a binary.  We are “opposite sexes,” then, but only in our minds.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How Many PhDs are Professors?

When I approached my undergraduate mentors about graduate school in 1996, they warned me that many people who earn PhDs never get jobs in academia.  This is sometimes deliberate, as their are jobs outside of academia for some degree-holders to get, but it’s also sometimes a grave disappointment.  My mentors emphasized the extent of the risk (and frankly scared me quite a lot), but how bad was it?  And is it worse today?

The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann put together the data.  The leftmost bars on his figure show that, on average, under a quarter of PhDs landed a full-time job at a college or university in 1991.  That number had dropped to less than 20% by 2011.  The numbers, however, vary significantly by field:

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See here for more details.

The looming question, of course, is what percentage of PhDs want a full-time academic job, something that certainly varies by field.  In other words, there aren’t a boatload of bitter engineers bad-mouthing the academy while slinging lattes at Starbucks.  Here’s a hint at an answer: A study published in 1999 found that 53% of all new PhDs said they wanted to become professors.  Ten years later, just over half were tenured (54%) and a handful more were tenure-track (7%); a third weren’t in academia at all.

On the one hand, I think these numbers are really depressing. Five to ten years is a long time to train for a career only to discover that, for whatever reason, you won’t be employed in the area of your expertise.  But I have two “on the other hands.”

On one other hand, I wonder how these numbers compare to other occupations?  We accept that certain occupations are highly competitive and include a lot of dumb luck and failure.  Modeling and acting are obvious examples, there are certainly others.  I know someone who’s spent their lifetime trying to become an astronaut.  Where does academia fall in the spectrum of risky job endeavors?

On a second other hand, I’d love to see some research on what happens to academics — especially in the humanities and social sciences — when they don’t get a job in academia or are denied tenure after getting there.  Within academia, this is often framed as THE END OF YOUR LIFE.  But maybe it’s often okay or pretty good.  Honestly, I don’t know.

Interesting and useful data, to be sure, but far from the whole story.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Men Throwing “Like a Girl”: Separating Nature from Nurture

Screenshot_5One of the few genuinely large observed differences between men and women involves throwing ability.  Men, on average, are much stronger throwers than women.  Hence the phrase “throws like a girl.”

That we observe a difference, however, tells us nothing about where that difference comes from.  Figuring that out is much more difficult than simply measuring difference and sameness.  We know that the difference emerges at puberty, suggesting that sheer size might have something to do with it.  But the fact that boys and men, on average, get much more practice throwing than women might also play a role.  How to test this?

Well, here’s one way: compare men and women throwing with their non-dominant hand.  Muscle memory doesn’t transfer from one side of the body to the other.  Accordingly, since most people have a lot of practice throwing only with one hand, comparing the throws of men and women using their non-dominant hand might tell us something interesting.

I don’t know that that study has been done, but an enterprising videographer has captured video of a set of men throwing with the “wrong” hand. What I like most about the video is the men’s facial expressions.  You can see them laughing at themselves, suddenly reduced to a beginner thrower.  Though we still don’t know how much of it is biological and how much social — though, this is the wrong question anyway — it reveals that, no matter what the answer, men’s throwing ability is strongly related to practice:

A big thanks to Reynaldo C. for sending in the video!

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.