The Post-Masters Experiment

I got a Master's degree in Gender, Media, & Culture. This is what I'm doing with it.

Leveling Both Sides of the Playing Field

(cross-posted on Medium)

It seems like every day I’m getting invited to a class on negotiation skills for women or a seminar about how women can have work-life balance or a colloquium, you guessed it, for women about unconscious bias. On one hand, how fantastic is that I have avenues to tackle these challenges? On the other hand, why the hell is this *my* problem? These types of initiatives & conversations are taking a very myopic view of these very real issues — putting the onus largely on women (and other minority identities) instead of on the power structures and power-bearers that inculcate such a culture. Which then serves to only further entrench the notion of these masculine ideals: the ouroboros of inequality.

What if, instead of teaching women that they have to raise their hands to speak at meetings, we taught men to be more reflective and circumspect; instead of telling women to tamp down their emotions at the office, a man was told that he didn’t appear committed enough to the job because he’s never shed tears over it; instead of pushing women to take public credit for their work, we publicly admonish men who don’t properly acknowledge others’ contributions? I was just invited to a seminar on public speaking skills for women — where’s the class on listening skills for men?

We need to both create more room for women to take on “masculine” attributes — as well as pay equal attention to the inverse: pushing for more freedom for men to take on “feminine” attributes. (And maybe once we do that, we can finally eliminate this binary concept of masculine/feminine attributes, which only serve to hold both groups back. But that’s an issue for another time.) If we’re teaching women that they shouldn’t be afraid to be make firm decisions (and evaluating them on it), why aren’t we teaching men to, say, be better caregivers to their teams (and evaluating them on it)? It’s because the culture values the male attributes (which are set as diametrically opposed to the female attributes, thus fundamentally in conflict), and sets those as the standard.

Over the past couple months, I’ve kept thinking about this interview with a juror from the Ellen Pao trial. She — a middle-aged woman working in tech — completely agreed that the overall culture was antithetical to Pao’s success, yet sided with Kleiner. Our culture has become so accustomed to privileging traditionally male attributes that we’re blind to the ways that manifests as discrimination.

As long as women’s success is measured on men’s playing field, we will lose. Just because some women can win at that game doesn’t mean it’s a fair fight. (Plus, I’m not willing to accept things like an all time high — 5%! — representation among Fortune 500 CEOs as a ‘win’.) We need to forge new paths, not set one narrow path — built by and for white men for millennia — as the only route to success. Paths on which everyone is welcome.

The responsibility shouldn’t lie with the segments of the population who hadn’t even been allowed at the starting line for much of human history. Once again, we’re setting women up in a double (or, really, exponential) bind: the onus is been placed upon individual women to shape their own, specific destiny (you need to negotiate harder for yourself! you need to speak up for your ideas! find yourself a mentor!); the second it appears that they’re advancing themselves at the expense of other women, it’s time for a one-way ticket to their special place in hell (part of a very pernicious, inherently gendered trope). And all the while, men largely escape any accountability at either the personal or the structural levels.

I’m tired of being told to raise my hand more quickly in meetings. Maybe I just do my best work when I’m quietly synthesizing information from others, not brainstorming aloud. I’m tired of being taught tips to avoid ever shedding a single tear in the workplace. Maybe I’m so passionate about my job — and often spend more time with it than my own family — that it’s the main source of my emotional energy. I’m tired of being told I need to demand a promotion. Maybe I recognize that I’m better executing on ideas, not managing people. Maybe we could benefit if all people were more thoughtful about when and how to embody these traits. Maybe all of these traits have their own unique merits, not a male/female, either/or, good/bad diametric opposition. It’s time to stop telling women to lean in. It’s time to start talking about where men need to lean.

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covering my bases

My brain doesn’t always process emotional cues in the same way many other people’s do. You walk into your kitchen and think, ok that over there is the sink. I walk into the kitchen and think, I know I’m supposed to think that’s a sink but I’m not really sure if it is what if it’s a bumblebee oh maybe it’s a Kia Sorrento. Maybe the next day, I walk back into the same kitchen and think, oh my god that’s the most perfect sink I’ve ever seen in my life; my house should be a museum devoted to this very sink. And when you go through a few of those, it can be really hard to know when to trust yourself on the occasions when you do think “yup, that object is a standard kitchen sink” — or when you don’t even notice the sink at all, because who the hell pays attention to their sink?

So, that, but with feelings. Wait, am I supposed to feel something positive about this? Am I going to ruin everything by not expressing sadness? Ok maybe I do feel sadness after all. And now it’s four hours later and I’ve spent my night trying to figure out how I felt about how I was spending my night.

But in one area, it’s crystal clear:
The Giants winning makes me happy.
The Giants losing makes me unhappy.
Madison Bumgarner gliding a cutter over the outside corner makes me happy.
Brandon Belt striking out looking makes me unhappy.

When I’m watching baseball, I know the emotional cues of every single pitch the second it crosses the plate. Actually, I don’t know it at all: I feel it. There’s no processing – no time for second-guessing – there’s just responding. The particular joy of going to a baseball game, for me, is being surrounded by 40,000 people feeling the exact same emotions as you at the exact same moments. 40,000 people distill into one singular, perfectly calibrated organism. When the Giants are in the World Series, the entire city beats one heart. You walk down the street the day after a win and know you have a shared happiness with nearly everyone you pass; you walk down the street after a loss and feel the disappointment pulsing in both your veins. And when they win it all: you hear the cheers out your window as soon as the ball lands in Pablo’s glove, and feel the joy before his knees hit the grass. You feel it — and in this moment, so do I.

Elaine’s Victoria’s Secret

It may surprise you to know that I watched, and live-tweeted, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. But it was all in the same of feminism, I swear: I attempted to geekily subvert the hell out of it by using feminist/critical theorist quotes alongside the images. Take a look over on Twitter. Here’s a preview…

On Street Harassment

Imagine you’re back in college and working on a term paper at the library. You asked a friend to review it for you once you finish the first draft, and then you’ll ship it off to your professor for her official verdict. But as you’re pecking away, someone walks up by and starts reading over your shoulder, offering some color commentary:

“Oooh that’s a great font! The formatting looks so good!”

“You should use the Oxford comma. It will make you seem smarter.”

“Goddamn you are smart! Want to come study with me some time? You are so smart! Come on, join my study group!”

And then throughout the course of the evening, three other people pop up behind you and offer their own variations of that feedback.

You wanted to hear what a couple people thought about your paper (and, really, by extension your intellectual abilities), but you didn’t ask for, want, or need the feedback of these strangers. You find it distracting. You find it completely unhelpful, because they’ve only glanced superficially at one page over your shoulder, but haven’t poured through the entire essay you’ve spent days on. Yes, it’s mostly complimentary, but that’s beside the point: They aren’t offering feedback in a way that’s helpful to you at that point, or that’s based on truly knowing your academic work.

It’s probably pretty clear where I’m going with this.

Now imagine this uninvited commentary is about your body – your physical existence in this world, which you have no choice but to bring with you everywhere you go – peppered throughout every day of your life.

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Home field advantage

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About 95 minutes ago, I watched a small dot whistle through the air towards a large brick wall separating land from sea. I understood it instantly but couldn’t fathom it: Travis Ishikawa (this is where you say “who?” even if you are a sports fan) carried the Giants on his journeyman shoulders straight into the World Series. My arms and voice and feet and heart came alive; they operated in sync with the arms and voices and feet and hearts of the other 43,216 people sitting – no, standing, no, jumping, no, levitating – at AT&T Park. My brain may still be catching up.

I’ve had the great fortune (and, spent a small fortune) to be at the past two pennant-clinching games for the San Francisco Giants. 2012. NLCS Game 7.  St. Louis Cardinals. A runaway victory that turned into a poetic, iconic clincher with the biblical downpour beating the champagne to fall from the skies. 2014. NLCS Game 5. St. Louis Cardinals. A nailbiter; the Giants scoring in unexpectedly traditional ways; the Cardinals scoring at all against MadBum, our unshakeable MadBum; vagarious down to the last slider.

And with that final swing – Ishikawa’s to Frank from Oakville; Holliday to a drenched Scutaro – eruption. Scream. Jump. Feel. A brontide rips across the city.

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Cartoonish Notions

There are women out there who are tall and thin and white and able-bodied. Our media vastly (excessively, grossly, overwhelmingly etc) over-represents them, and idealizes them, but they are, you know, corporeal beings.

And then there’s this:

Women already face an unending, ubiquitous onslaught of skewed, unhealthy, unrealistic, purportedly “aspirational” beauty images. And then there’s that. Women are now being held to the beauty standards of animated characters. We are told that we should buy a product that will make us look more like something drawn in a cartoon.

Could this make it any clearer how much of a construct “femininity” is? These illustrated non-human characters are imbued with a gender, which is largely manifested just through heightened physical depictions based on assumptions of femininity, which are then extracted back out again as beauty standards for real women.

Could this make it any clearer how much of a vicious, endless, hostage scenario our beauty-industrial complex is? Oh, are we seeing a (teeny tiny) widening of the range of women whose bodies we’ll understand as beautiful? Time to move the goalposts to include depictions of beauty that aren’t even human women at all.

Opting Out of Feminism

Being a feminist is deeply, profoundly integral to my identity. Being a feminist has brought a clarity to the way I see the world. Being a feminist helps set a purpose for my life. Being a feminist has brought me many of my deepest, most meaningful friendships. Being a feminist connects me to one of the most brilliant, passionate, brave communities out there.

That’s the power of self-identifying as a feminist. It brings together women and men unequivocally committed to advancing equality.

And yet: Has the battle for feminist identity overpowered the battle for feminist causes?

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Mansplain on a Plane

Over on Twitter (because, obviously) is an account of an encounter I had on a plane a few days ago. Here’s how it starts:

Grab some popcorn and go read the full retroactive-live-tweet spree here: https://twitter.com/isaach/timelines/503993197878861824.

Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.
-Gloria Steinem

Building The House

Since the viral spread of the #BanBossy campaign run by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In org — with support from an impressive roster of high-profile women — I’ve been asked by several friends and colleagues what I thought of the initiative.

My obvious instinct is to do a celebratory dance for achieving my life goal of being the feminist-on-call to offer the definitive critical assessment of a given issue.

And then I try to remember the whole basic humility thing – jk, it’s actually because my dance moves are awful – so I attempt to deliver an impassioned pedantic soliloquy about the obvious right answer, based on my presumably extensive knowledge of the feminist literature. (Hopefully they won’t notice that I cite the same 3 authors every time I do so, because I actually forgot 98% of what I learned in school. Crap, do my words sound fancy enough? Insert more syllables! Ok, discursivism is totally not a word. (But I bet I could find at least 4 articles on JSTOR that use it.))

But no, that doesn’t feel quite right either. On the particular #BanBossy front, I have an instinct for where I net out, but I find myself able to build a compelling argument for both sides. At a broader level, though, I wonder why certainty matters at all. Does advocating for one sole position advance, or — perhaps — can it hinder the feminist endeavor? So much has been achieved; there is still so much to achieve. How do we get there?

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