Category Archives: Gender

A man walks into a bar…

Not just an ordinary bar, a speakeasy bar tucked away in Williamsburg proper with an entrance so discrete you could walk right by it while knowing the address. Above the narrow gray cement entryway is the word “bar” painted in the most delicate of fonts. The heavy wooden door gives way to a long hallway and a second door, which finally lets out into a huge, wooden room with no decorations except for the back light on the bottles of liquor positioned in an array across the wall behind the bar.

This is my place of sanctuary in New York, my Cheers, where everybody knows your name and if they don’t they learn it within minutes because all the weird night owls of Brooklyn go there to banter with strangers when they need to be alone in public. “Regularity” isn’t a term you can apply to much about my life in New York City, but going to that place on Tuesday nights is probably the most regular thing I’ve done throughout these past four years. On Tuesdays, the bar is pleasantly scarce, allowing my favorite, long-haired, Alkaline Trio-loving bartender plenty of time to pay attention to me. Sometimes he sings my name when I walk in, as I saunter across the room before I take my place on the last bar stool, the seat that is reserved for the bartender’s favorite by unspoken speakeasy law.

So last night, I was sitting there when a man walked into the bar. He was a patron of some regularity, as the bartender and Mary, the regular sitting next to me, greeted him by his name, Connor, and introduced him to me. I watched him interact for a few minutes, without saying anything. There are so many instances in my everyday life where I am compelled to force pleasantries with people who simply must be liked, but when I am out by myself in Brooklyn, I allow myself be as standoffish as I want.

Connor started explaining to the three of us that he had come here to escape an odd situation in which he had felt compelled to suddenly leave his girlfriend’s house. “I just had to get up and go right at that moment,” he said, confused. “I don’t know what came over me, I just got up and left.”

“Why?” the bartender asked.

“I don’t know,” Connor replied. “I asked myself that and I just couldn’t come up with an answer.”

“Do you usually?” I asked, entering the conversation. My participation was like a prize for him, and he began to speak animatedly as if his words were a return gift.

“Yeah. You know how like, when you’re thinking about something, and you ask yourself a question, and your brain answers back with the answer? It’s usually a back and forth, but this time it was just a blank. There was no answer. Don’t you do that when you think?”

“It’s a pretty fluid process for me,” I replied flatly. There was something about Connor and his lack of introspection that set my loser alerts on high.

“So you just left your girlfriend?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, I just needed to leave.”

“What happened that prompted you to leave?” I asked, playing psychologist.

“It was a pretty normal night,” he said.

“But what happened right before you got up and left?”

“Well…” he said before pausing for a moment, “there was a dysfunctional vagina incident.”

The end of the bar erupted in a chorus of “Ooooh”s and “Okay”s, glad to finally have the logical truth. I said nothing but put my elbow on the bar and pressed my fingertips to my temple. He continued:

“Yeah, we’ve been dating for a while and whenever we have sex it’s like fucking PEMDAS. You know what PEMDAS is, right?” he asked looking at me with a challenge in his eye.

“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” I said, squinting at him. “How does PEMDAS apply to sex?”

“Because she needs everything to be done in a certain order or else it derails the whole train.”

“You know, just because you can’t get your girlfriend wet, it doesn’t mean she has a dysfunctional vagina,” I said. The bartender stifled a laugh.

“I knew one of you women was going to say that,” Connor said.

“So you got mad at her for not getting wet and then you just left?” Mary asked in disbelief.

Connor shrugged, and said he would have stayed if it had been later or he was tired, but there were waterworks of self-doubt, so he left and came here. The bartender was shaking his head at this point and caught my eye. Once upon a time in college, I used to think there was something wrong with me, that my body was broken somehow because it wouldn’t respond the way the boys I dated expected it to. I decided that sex was inherently unenjoyable, that the whole act was just a patriarchal plot to keep women submissive, and that women who claimed to like it were probably just deluded in a way similar to Stockholm Syndrome or were simply enduring it to obtain some power in the relationship. It wasn’t until that bartender and a few sets of soaking sheets that I realized how wrong I was.

I wonder how many women live their whole lives thinking they’re sexual misfits because the men who govern their sexuality aren’t comfortable or giving or skilled enough with their own to activate the sexual response mechanisms innate in their partners, physically and mentally.

Connor did a shot and asked the bartender if he wanted to roll the dice with him in a game of threes, but the bartender dismissed the idea. Connor didn’t ask Mary and I to play, obviously, since we’re women and all. But I slapped a bill on the table and told him to roll.

I took his money every game with a smile on my face.

Losing my religion

When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to Sunday School at the Methodist church in the rural Michigan town where my grandpa lived every other weekend.

One weekend we had an assignment to make little models of the twelve disciples any way our little child brains saw fit. I crafted them out of wooden clothespins, drawing smiley faces on the rounded end and pants on the two pegs for legs. I proudly brought them in and showed them to my teacher who praised me.

During that class while we were learning about Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon, Jude Thaddaeus, and Judas Iscariot, I raised my hand and asked the teacher why we never learned about girls.

“They weren’t important back then,” she said.

I went home and told my mom I never wanted to go back there. I never did.

Gendered Color Dichotomies-R-Us

A Toys-R-Us advertisement made its way around the Internet yesterday followed by a trail of outrage and discussion regarding gender and science education. The offending ad, blogged yesterday by Lisa Wade from Sociological Images, features side-by-side sets of three microscopes and three telescopes of various colors and magnifications, with the lowest strength equipment corresponding to the pink instrument, AKA the girl’s instrument.

The image is a bit blurry so to clarify, the maximum magnification of the microscopes are black -1200x, red-900x, pink-600x; the two black telescopes featured reach 525x and 250x, while the pink one is labeled at 90x.

As Dr. Isis, who has blogged about the ad over at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, noted, nobody would dare deny that pink is the color most positively associated with the female gender. I also wouldn’t expect to hear any arguments that it is also the color most negatively associated with masculinity (unless you happen to be a Jewish frat boy from New Jersey). The ad gives the impression that the girl version of the science toys are the weakest in functionality, making Toys-R-Us seem to be promoting the idea that science is a man’s activity.

Well, yeah. Men far outnumber women in scientific areas of study and professions, most notably in the top hierarchical tiers. But they shouldn’t (Larry Summers you can eat me). So why not give the girlies crutches like these pink toys to get them involved in science and equalize the discrepancy?

Dr. Isis put it nicely:

I get the alleged altruistic intent, even though it only very thinly veils a heap of patriarchal baloney — we’re showing the girls that they can do boy stuff and still be “girly” too, even if the work they are able to do with the tools will be, by design, subpar… I worry about needing to send the message that science must be fashionable to attract girls, because I fear that fashion is deeply rooted in the patriarchy — rooted in a culture that teaches girls to be subservient, demure, and open to the sexual whims of their male counterparts… Creating a separate but equal dichotomy for children has the potential to be the biggest science FAIL in the history of the universe.

OK. So there’s a few different things going on here, so let’s examine this issue more closely. First, I want to address the question: Is it is correct to assume that the science toys manufactured for girls are less powerful? If so, what are the implications of that? Could Toys-R-Us, a corporation that has the power to majorly influence the perceptions of children, be either intentionally or unintentionally using this gendered color dichotomy to reinforce the idea that science is for boys?

I wanted to give them the benefit of doubt. So I went to the Toys-R-Us website and looked at their entire selection of microscopes and telescopes. They are all part of a Toys-R-Us exclusive line called “Edu-Science” which is listed under the categories of “Learning” and “Science and Discovery”. Using screen shots from the website, I put together these image clusters so you can get a better idea of where the pink products fall in the line-up.

Here we see that while the pink telescope has the lowest magnification offered, it has a black counterpart. It’s not like the lowest-end model ONLY comes in pink. That would would have looked really bad for Toys-R-Us — as bad as it did in their advertisement.

With the microscopes, the pink item is placed at a mid-ranged level and has a black counterpart, so it’s not the case here either that the girls’ instrument is the weakest. So it seems Toys-R-Us is not SO bad after all, although they definitely have a shitty coupon book-making team. They’re a business and their goal is to sell more products, and either they’re testing if pink science tools can do that, or they’ve established that they can and are riding the wave. So with this in mind, I would like to pose these questions to those put-off by the ad: Would you rather see the pink telescope eliminated completely from the product line, or have a pink telescope offered as an alternative to the high-end models? Is the fact that a pink microscope exists offensive? Given that its functionality is the same as the other $34.99 model, would it be inappropriate to give that to a girl?

Not to taint your opinions, but I know what my choice would be, and I’m sure you will be able to guess after I say that I personally despise pink and all it stands for. It’s like the Communist red of Capitalism, inextricable from its associations. What I would prefer is to see the pink=girl association shattered forEVER and have kids’ toys and clothing offered in a range of colors. I really don’t like Apple products because they are all too god damn cute for me, but I’m going to use it as an example and point out that when the first colored iPod line, the iPod mini, was released in 2004, there wasn’t a silver one and a pink one, there was silver, orange, pink, blue and green. Choices, they’re the spice of life.

There’s something else that’s bothering me about this whole thing, and I don’t know if I’ve quite nailed it down. But it’s two-part and one has to do with the answer to this question: Given that the functionalities of the pink telescope and microscope are the same as their black counterparts, would it be inappropriate to give the pink instruments to a boy? Imagine your son or nephew ripping off your wrapping paper to find a pink microscope, or a pink anything, and I think you know the answer.

While the pink items might be marketed towards the girls, who are inclined to pick them because it is aligned with their gender role identity, girls more-or-less have a choice if they want the pink or the black one. But boys can’t choose. If a male chooses something feminine, he is emasculated and ridiculed for his selection, sometimes automatically labeled as gay. And I find this to be very sad.

The second part has to do with all the shit that I get for wearing Dr. Marten combat boots on the regular. I love them, yet a certain Laboratory Goddess who will remain nameless, despises them. She has said that I am far too lovely to be wearing those grungy boots, and I adore her for that because I knew she says it with love, the criticism mostly in jest, but still. But I don’t want to be just a pretty girl all the time. I want to be MORE than a pretty girl. My ability to wear combat boots in the face of criticism comes from the same place that allowed me to excel in math and science my whole life — it’s a place of defiance against norms. And I know some people love high heels and shoes that are girly, and I do too sometimes. (Especially the ones she got me for Christmas last year!) But if we are going to criticize a toy store for pushing pink science toys on girls to keep them aligned with their gender roles, we can’t criticize those girls when they break out of those roles. Then they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and that only leads to neurosis.

To conclude, If we want to stop producing adult women with notions of intellectual and societal inferiority that keep them from pursuing and advancing in scientific fields, we need to stop ingraining these notions in our kids by segregating them with “boy” and “girl” versions of goods based on the notions of gender that create the dynamics we’re trying to change. And then if those kids grow up with the freedom and confidence to break societal modes, we need to support them, not punish them.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for now. One of these days I’ll tell you about my black ballet shoes.