I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.
Let’s watch and see what issues this K-Y lube campaign raises:
You see, it’s funny because the “warming” lube is so effective, the chubby old slob is irresistible to his more put-together wife. Here’s another:
While I think mature men like me can take the hit on our egos, there is another angle to consider here. In an AdWeek post on “Hunkvertising,” my social media friend David Gianatasio interviewed Lisa Wade, about what the trendy treatment of men as sex objects in advertising actually says about women.
Many ad experts and social critics see the whole thing as a harmless turning of the tables following decades of bikini-clad babes in beer commercials. Double entendres abound when dissecting the trend, the overriding feeling being that it can’t be taken all that seriously because, after all, we are just talking about guys here. “We’re all in on the gender-reversal joke,” explains Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. “It’s funny to us to think of women being lustful.”
When the lust is treated even more ironically, as with these men who are not exactly Isaiah Mustafa, both the woman’s lust and the man’s sexual desirability are the gag.
As Dr. Wade added in her post about the post she was interviewed for, “the joke affirms the gender order because the humor depends on us knowing that we don’t really objectify men this way and we don’t really believe that women are the way we imagine men to be.”
And here, the men aren’t either. It’s good for a laugh, but over the long term is it good for men and women?
Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at workthatmatters.blogspot.com.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky once observed that being feminine often means using one’s body to portray powerlessness. Consider: A feminine person keeps her body small and contained; she makes sure that it doesn’t take up to much space or impose itself. She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways. She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.
Likewise, burping and farting, raising one’s voice in an argument, and even laughing loudly are considered distinctly unfeminine. A feminine person doesn’t use her body to forcefully interact with the world, she lets others do for her when possible. ”Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote.
Stunningly, when you think about it, these features of feminine body comportment are, in fact, not uniquely feminine, but associated with deference more generally. Bartky again:
In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat. Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return. What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…
Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness. Both men and women use their bodies in more feminine ways when their interacting with a superior, whether it be their boss, their commander, a police officer, or their professor.
New evidence suggests that this is not pure theory. Psychologist Andy Yap and his colleagues tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement. They did. In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation. A sense of powerfulness, reported by the subjects, mediated the effect (a robust finding that others have documented as well).
In a real world test of the theory, they found that large automobiles with greater internal space were more likely than small ones to be illegally parked in New York City.
Research, then, has shown that expansive body postures that take up room instill a psychological sense of power and entitlement. The fact that this behavior is gendered may go some way towards explaining the persistence of gender inequality and, more pointedly, some men’s belief that they have earned their unearned privileges.
Gianatasio interviewed me for the piece and I had two thoughts. First, because the ads are so tongue-in-cheek, they didn’t seem to be acknowledging and validating women’s sexual desire, so much as mocking it. ”It’s funny to us to think of women being lustful,” I told Gianatasio, “because we don’t really take women’s sexuality very seriously.” In this way, the joke affirms the gender order because the humor depends on us knowing that we don’t really objectify men this way and we don’t really believe that women are the way we imagine men to be.
Second, objectifying men alongside women certainly isn’t progress. There’s the old critique that, if it is equality, it’s not the kind we want. But, more importantly, the forces behind this so-called equality have nothing to do with justice. Gianatasio generously gave me the last word:
I wouldn’t call it equality — I’d call it marketing, and maybe capitalism. Market forces under capitalism exploit whatever fertile ground is available. Justice and sexual equality aren’t driving increasing rates of male objectification — money is.
UPDATE: I may have been wrong about this one and, if so, I apologize. The Univ. of Alabama has released a statement saying that the image is not photoshopped, including a quote from the student saying “It’s kind of funny, but people are blowing it out of proportion a little bit.” If anyone has further information on this story, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2000, the University of Wisconsin – Madison was sued by a man named Diallo Shabazz. Because the college wanted to present itself as a diverse place, Shabazz, a black man, had been featured in university marketing materials for several years. That year, however, his face was photoshopped into a picture of a crowd at a football game. He complained, but was blown off. He’d had enough. In his lawsuit, he asked not for a settlement, but for a “budgetary apology”: money dedicated to increasing the actual diversity of the campus.
Today @EricTTung sent us another example of this kind of doctored diversity, currently the first slide on the homepage of the University of Alabama. Do you see it?
How about now?
Note the skin color of the African American man’s hands.
As I’d written in the post about Shabazz, this teaches us both that colleges believe that diversity is a useful commodity with which to market their institutions and that, “if real diversity isn’t possible, cosmetic diversity will do.”
Recruitment of minorities to a mostly white campus: tricky. Addressing the systematic educational underinvestment in minorities prior to arriving: expensive. Retaining minorities in that environment: challenging. Photoshop: easy.