Call Me What I Tell You to Call Me

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Vanity Fair’s July 2015 issue features a glamorous woman on the cover with the words, “Call me Caitlyn.” Inside is a 22-page article about that woman’s journey to trans-womanhood. If you didn’t know any better, you would have no reason to suspect that this woman used to be a man. But because of the media coverage (hysteria?), almost everyone knows better. The irony is that Caitlyn Jenner probably would like nothing better than to be left in peace to be the woman she’s always longed to be. But because she’s a celebrity, she will probably never have that experience.

And yet I think her decision to “come out” in such a public way was actually quite brilliant. Stories about her “fluid” gender identity have been circulating for quite a while now and I applaud her decision to tell her own story. Less than two months ago, Jenner gave his last official interview as Bruce, with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, in which he explained his struggle to become and accept the person he believes he was really meant to be. The Vanity Fair feature is her first public appearance as Caitlyn. And, in his words, “As soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.”

As you might expect, the public’s responses have been all over the place. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” made the astute observation that now that Jenner is a woman she is going to have the unfortunate experience of being treated like one; in other words, as if the only thing that matters is her appearance. Many other people have applauded her bravery. Still others feel that she is, at best, in need of some soul-saving, and at worst, an abomination. And then there is the transgender community, which might well see her as its ambassador.

There is also a fair amount of cynicism leveled at Jenner’s actions. She has been accused of doing all this as a publicity stunt and a way to drive traffic to her reality show, which is set to debut this summer on E! Network. She laughs at the idea that she would go through all this (including surgery to feminize her features) just to pay the bills. On the contrary, she sees this as an opportunity to educate the public about what it means to be transgender as well as offer hope to other people who are transgender.

Many people believe that it’s impossible to be “born in the wrong body,” that saying you’re the opposite sex (from the one you were assigned at birth) doesn’t make it true; and that being transgender is a choice. But even the DSM (the manual  used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders) recently revised its terminology from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” to remove some of the stigma and enable trans men and women to get help with their “profound state of unease or dissatisfaction” about the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s not exactly saying that transgender is as “normal” in its way as heterosexuality or that it’s just one of several ways to be gendered in our society, but it has backed off from treating it as a mental illness.

We need to stop treating being transgender as a disease or a sin and start listening to the people who claim it as their gender identity. There must be some reason why they feel the way they do; it’s not likely something they would make up as a lark. Imagine having others tell you that you’re crazy or perverted just because you’re trying to express who you feel you are at the fundamental core of your being.

When I first saw the Vanity Fair cover, I thought “Call me Caitlyn” was a plea, for understanding and acceptance. But the more I thought about it, the more I hoped that it was a command instead. We all have the right to tell others what to call us and we need to exercise that right without apology. To do otherwise is to lose who we are.

 

 

Now is the U.S. Ready for a Woman President?

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woman man imageEven though I’ve been a feminist since my freshman year in college—so, for some 44 years—I didn’t initially think of writing this blog from a feminist perspective. But then the 2008 presidential race began and I found my focus. The fact that a woman was vying for the Democratic nomination—and making a damn good showing—made me think more seriously about how women are seen in our society. Specifically about whether or not this country was ready—or would ever be ready—to vote in a woman president.

As a Second Wave feminist (a feminist who came of age during the ’60s and ’70s), I leaned toward Clinton because she is a woman. I admit it. After all, electing a woman president would be quite a feather in feminism’s hat. Younger feminists tend to reject the idea that, all other things being equal in a competition between a man and a woman, they should always support the woman. But I’d waited a long time for something like this to happen and I couldn’t help but see it as a historic opportunity.

Of course, electing a black president would also be historic, but I couldn’t help but think that the main reason Obama, as opposed to Clinton, got the nomination was because he is a man; his gender may have outweighed the fact that he is black. In other words, gender was more of an issue than race.

Now here we are again. Except that this time there doesn’t appear to be anyone else who can beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And yet I don’t kid myself: that’s not because she’s a woman, or even because she is the best woman. It’s simply because she has more influence, money and power, not to mention experience, than anyone else who might challenge her.

However, that in itself is historic. She didn’t get where she is today by riding on her husband’s coat-tails; if anything, her status as Mrs. Clinton is a negative in many people’s eyes. I voted for Bill Clinton and thought he was a decent president, but I see Hillary Clinton as completely separate from her husband, which is probably the way she wants it.

No one really knows of course, but I’m guessing that Clinton has been carefully planning her political path for years, even before her husband was elected president. Maybe she didn’t see the presidency in her future, but she certainly set her sights on a political career of some kind. And now she’s on the brink of possibly bagging the biggest prize in U.S. politics.

The feminist in me wonders if Clinton is just an anomaly, or if this country is actually more open to women in politics than it used to be. I’m afraid that it’s the former. The U.S. still lags behind many other countries in gender balance in politics: America now ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998.

But this post isn’t about that (I’ll save that for a later post); it’s about the chances of Clinton becoming president. If she doesn’t win, will it be because of her politics or her gender? I do think that her politics will be an issue, but only if the voter can look past her gender in the first place. A lot of people will say it’s her politics they object to, but really, in their deepest hearts, it’s that they just can’t accept the idea of a woman president.

These are the people whose default leader is always a man. Oh, they’re willing to throw a woman a leadership bone now and then, as long as she stays in her own area of expertise (which usually has to do with caring for or nurturing something or someone). But when it comes to really important positions, like president of the United States, only a man will do.

When reminded that other nations have had women presidents and prime ministers, they reply, “Yes, but those countries aren’t America.” They see the U.S. as unique, as exceptional, which means that it needs to be headed by a person who is also exceptional. The President of the United States needs to exhibit the traits of a true leader, that is, strong, smart, courageous, masterful and powerful. Who fits that bill the best? A man, of course!

The ironic thing is, when a woman exhibits the same traits that we admire in male leaders, it makes a lot of people are uncomfortable, because women aren’t supposed to be like men; they’re supposed to be like women, which means kind, sensitive, nurturing—and indecisive. Women don’t have the balls to be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

I hate to think that a Republican will win the presidency mainly because he’s a man. That there are people who have no problem with Clinton’s politics but who just can’t bring themselves to vote for a woman. But I’m afraid that’s just what will happen. I could be wrong; I hope I am. But I’m afraid that this country is still not ready for a woman president.

Does a Woman Need a Room of Her Own?

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Virginia Woolf wrote* that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write [fiction].” She was writing about writers, but what she said applies to being a woman, period. If a woman is to be her own person, she must have autonomy, which in this world means enough money to live on and the ability to make your own destiny. What does that have to do with a room of one’s own, though? And what does that mean anyway?

I noticed a couple of years ago that HGTV (Home and Gardening TV Network) began referring to “man caves.” These are set-apart rooms for the man of the house where he can pursue what he’s interested in and be himself. The implication is that a man can’t truly relax anywhere else in the house, as if all the other square footage belongs to his wife (and children, if there are any).

The other implication is that women don’t need “woman caves” because they have the whole house in which to pursue their interests and be themselves. The belief that the house is primarily the sphere of women probably dates back to the days when everyone lived in caves. The women stayed home and took care of the children, prepared the meals and fashioned utensils (and later, practiced agriculture) while the men went out and “earned a living.” The larger world was not for the female sex, but by the same token, men didn’t feel entirely welcome in the smaller world of home and hearth.

Even in this day when men and women both work outside of the home, women are seen as the primary housekeepers and men the householders (the ones who own the home). It’s a usually unspoken agreement between the sexes that women can do what they want with the inside of the house and men make the “bigger” decisions that have to do with the world outside the home.

I have a friend from high school who recently posted pictures on Facebook of the interior of his house. Some of the comments referred to his taste as well as his wife’s and suggested that they should both take up house staging (which is arranging the furnishings in a home so that it is more appealing to potential buyers). Apparently my friend had as much to say about how the interior of his home looks as his wife did.

I don’t think this is unusual. More men are taking an interest in home decorating (without automatically being thought of as gay). As a result, women are feeling pushed out of the house a little (until it comes to cleaning it—although that is changing somewhat, too).

The husband is no longer relegated to a workshop in the basement or garage. Now he is more likely to have a study, home office or man cave. But what about the wife? Where is her special place, where she can conduct her own affairs in private? I’m sorry, but the kitchen and laundry room just don’t qualify.

But the assumption persists that taking care of the home completes a woman in ways that would never be enough for a man. It is thought that all women have a nesting instinct and that they just tolerate their husbands’ presence, let alone his interference.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your home and feeling completed by taking care of it. The problem is that too many people, male and female, believe that that’s all a woman should want out of life. Even women talk themselves into believing that their priorities are skewed if they want to do anything but keep a house and raise children.

A room of one’s own doesn’t have to be a physical one; but it does need to exist. Autonomy requires the presence of privacy and the absence of interference. If you find that you can’t retreat into your own “space” where you can create who you are, then your personal growth will be stunted. You will only be a reflection of what other people want from you.

*Source: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, 1928.

Letting Men Off the Hook

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Melissa NelsonThree years ago, when Melissa Nelson was 33, she was fired by her boss because he felt that her beauty would tempt him to have an affair with her. (Apparently his wife agreed.) Ms. Nelson sued but her case was dismissed. The court ruled that being fired for being a threat to her boss’s marriage was within the law.

Excuse me? Where does it say that the law exists to protect men from their own sexual impulses? If that were the case, rapists might as well go free because, after all, they can’t help it. Especially if a woman dresses “provocatively” (a value judgment if I ever heard one). Why not expand that to “especially if she’s beautiful”?

I’m sick of the excuse that men are at the mercy of their “innate” natures. Girls are told that they have to be the ones to make sure that sex doesn’t happen between them and their dates or boyfriends, because “boys will be boys; they will always go as far as you let them.”

[This is insulting on two counts: it assumes that men can’t control themselves, and that women can (in other words, that they never want to have sex that badly). Both sexes are defined by their supposed normal sexual behaviors.]

I take issue with the attitude that it is the woman’s responsibility to keep men from temptation. If it was all right for Melissa Nelson’s boss to fire her because of the temptation factor, then every male boss could make a case for not hiring women at all.

Because, you know, men would behave themselves perfectly if women weren’t around.

 

LEGO Friends: a Friend to Girls?

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It’s too late for my daughters, or for me, for that matter, but not for my granddaughters. LEGO has come out with a series of kits created specifically for girls. After more than a decade of marketing to boys with themes like Star Wars, ninjas, monsters, dinosaurs and the like, LEGO has turned its attention to the market that is potentially just as lucrative; after all, females make up 51% of the population.

Not that LEGO hasn’t tried to reach out to girls before, but nothing really took off like the kits for boys. This time, LEGO devoted seven years of research to figuring out what kind of LEGO kits would appeal to girls. Last year, right after Christmas (go figure), the company debuted its LEGO Friends series. I’m only just now finding out about them because I was looking for a Christmas gift for my five-year-old grand-niece and I came across them at Target.

They caught my attention because they go beyond the rather limited role that dolls have in a little girl’s play. There are doll-like figures (5 centimeters taller than traditional LEGO minifigs) but LEGO has come up with an entire world that has to be built–with LEGOs, naturally–before the dolls can “live” in it. There are five main characters who each come with her own biography and personality and kits geared to her interests.

At first I was leery about gender-stereotyping, and rightfully so: The Friends’ world is called Heartlake City and the colors of the kits are all “girly” colors, mainly pastels. Not only that, but the environments the kits are designed to create are almost exclusively traditional female ones, like beauty parlors, cafés, performance studios, bedrooms, swimming pools and horse stables. The only kinds of occupations represented include actress/singer, beautician, baker, café owner and dog groomer; no doctors or police officers need apply. (I suppose a girl could borrow those figures from her brother’s kits.)

But there are also encouraging signs: one of the kits, a bedroom, includes a drum kit. There is a car, a speedboat and an airplane. The environments aren’t just places where the characters go; they own the businesses, perform on the stages, drive the cars, and so on.

If people are worried about making kids think that they can only play with “gender-appropriate” toys, then what about the LEGOs that are aimed at the male market? You’d think that boys are supposedto be all about fighting and destroying (and constructing and destroying again!–I’ve seen my grandson playing with LEGOs.) But maybe boys are simply more interested in action and girls in interaction. Who really knows? All I do know is that neither I nor my daughters were remotely interested in playing with LEGOs–I had my Ginny dolls, they had Strawberry Shortcake and later Barbie).

If LEGO Friends get more children interested in LEGOs, isn’t that a good thing? No one said that girls can’t play with Harry Potter (which is one of the few kits outside of LEGO Friends that has female characters in it) or Star Wars or any of the kits that are thought of as for boys. But now girls and boys who like things that are pretty, that involve role-playing and redecorating, or that aren’t all about wars and fighting, will have something that satisfies their needs as well.

Find out more about LEGO Friends here.

NOTE: I found this comment on the Internet which I found both amusing and disturbing: “my lil sis wants this set she has a the cafe but i use her minifigures as prisoners to my lex luthor minifugre from DC superheros and a slave to The Joker minifure.”

1958 Ginny Doll