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The Demise of the 'Chick Flick'

I could not have possibly said it better myself:

The fact that these movies [non-traditional female-led films] have been hits, while films like The Holiday, Music and Lyrics, and 27 Dresses have failed to reap huge profits, should be a wakeup call to producers. These high-budget flops all feature white, ultra-skinny heroines prancing against the backdrop of suburban mansions or windowed penthouses. I know they take place in cities, or towns, but I'm not sure which ones. The heroines dress fabulously and have nary a wrinkle, or an accent of any kind, and usually lack back-stories or families - or even much personality besides a frenetic cutesiness. And even when they do feature unusual characters, they ignore them.

It's definitely time to define "movies interesting to women" as something else than the bland, formulaic and privileged territory currently allotted to the chick flick genre.

Explaining Away Women Geeks

Via my fellow Skepchick Amanda last week, I found this fantastic post from Thus Spake Zuska about the way gender stereotypes are exploited in the press and her handy checklist to those wishing to write about her or other female geeks:

- Are you planning on describing me as (A) not what you'd expect, (B) surprisingly pretty, (C) a rarity, or (D) all of the above?
- Will you be emphasizing my Womanly Attributes? (A) Yes, (B) Yes, in detail, or (C) Yes, in detail, with references to giggles and cupcakes.
- Will you also explain how technology has unsexed me? (A) Yes, (B) Yes, while simultaneously infantilizing you, you "geeky super-normal enthusiastic girl"!
- Are you planning to include intimations that I slept my way to the top? (A) Yes, (B) No, just an attribution of your success to Powerful Male Associates. Who you probably slept with.
- Will you end by asking when I'm going to give up all these crazy ideas and go back to full-time Womanhood? (A) Yes, (B) Yes, because you scare the boys.

Warning - there's a particularly nasty troll in the comments, but the other commenters, male and female alike, make short work of him.

Yahoo! Shine

Hey, did you know that, starting today, women can use Yahoo!, too? Now there's a nice little portal/blog/magazine called Shine with female-centric topics like horoscopes, and parenting. Fear not the wild web anymore, ladies - now, it's Yahoo!-approved.

Okay, so it's not that bad. It's a hell of a lot better than the also recently-launched WOWOWOW, but it's also pretty easy to beat a website for women that displays the weather in terms of its effect on one's hair. But - where's the tech news? Astrology gets its own section, but nothing for world news, politics, or science? Is this really an accurate representation of women and the full spectrum of their interests?

The biggest problem, for me, with sites like Shine is that they're targeted towards women who are non- or casual web users, while the females already regularly on the web - who don't need entertainment news, or any news, spoon-fed to them - are overlooked. We need more involved methods of gathering and sharing information - like Digg ... except what we end up with is Sk*rt.

Update: I just noticed my new favorite female tech blogger also mourned the missed opportunity of Shine.

Nuturing Our Nerds

Who would you guess to be "just about the last group of people it's safe to mock in polite company" ... Republicans? Nudists? Nope - it's actually nerds:

David Anderegg has just published a book espousing that theory, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, and how the social stigma and social prejudice against nerds reveals our negative attitudes towards intellectualism and learning achievements - which, he says, are dragging our entire culture down.

And because I was watching The Twilight Zone over holiday and feel like drawing some moral-filled, foreboding, sci-fi similarities between real life and fiction - compare this line from the book, quoted in the above linked article:

In 2004, we graduated more sports-exercise majors from U.S. colleges than we did electrical engineers.

... to this sentence from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451:

With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.

Einstein & Dali

When I talk about the need to break down boundaries in technology and related fields, it generally involves issues of gender and occasionally race. But there is another barrier that I think deserves a good smashing just as much as the others, and that's the barrier we set up between art and science.

I've spoken before about how me being a naturally bookish and artsy chick in technology has often worked in my favor (although not without its attendant pains), but this is an issue that also works in the other direction - I feel certain that if scientists and tech people can benefit from a little right-brain thinking, artists and creative folk can learn from logic, rationality and scientific discipline. We tend to look at those two fields as worlds apart, each one unfathomable to those who don't "belong" to it. But how much sense does this actually make?

Some of my favorite pieces of art are those that can bridge the two worlds, from the brilliant twists of logic in the otherwise anarchic Alice in Wonderland to the clean lines and organization of minimalist painters like Mondrian. And not only do I appreciate more those bits of technology that incorporate good visual design (Apple products, or a particularly lovely bit of code) I adore the work of scientists like Carl Sagan, who were gifted writers and who expressed all the imagination and emotion they used in pursuing their work.

So I of course jumped on this article from a biology teacher describing how he teaches using dual examples of Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali. He wraps up with a much better summary of what I just rambled on about for three long paragraphs:

Our world might be a better and more enlightened place if all of us dropped the whole supposed left-brain/right-brain dichotomy and opened our whole minds to the full realm of human imagination as he did. The art world, the humanities world, the science world — ultimately we all live in one world, and it’s worth trying to understand each of the perspectives in it.

So, What ARE We Women Supposed To Do?

Not even a week after my rant about women being too smart for science, another brilliant version of the same argument comes along, via Feministing: women are also apparently too good for politics. Tucker Carlson says, in response to the low numbers of women in politics:

You could make the counter case that most women are so sensible, they don't want to get involved in something as stupid as politics. ...They've got real things to do.

So, just to recap: women are too smart for science, and too sensible for politics. Aren't we lucky we have dumb men around to take care of all the dirty, unpleasant work for us so we can do "real" things. I don't even want to hear the suggested list of pre-approved real activities women are designated to do.

You know what, if you're going to be a narrow-minded misogynist, then be a narrow-minded misogynist. Don't try to sugar-coat your offensive opinions in a layer of "women are just too good to do what I do" bullshit. At the very least, we can then respect your honesty.

For the record, going back to the original article's statements, we should all be embarrassed at the low numbers of women in American politics, if for no other reason than that the majority of the rest of the world is totally kicking our asses in that department. I'll say it again - instead of passive-agressively rationalizing why the imbalance exists, let's focus on taking positive steps to eliminate it, okay?

Are Women Too Smart for Science?

Although it's over a year old now, I just ran across (thanks to Reddit) this article about women in science from Philip Greenspun - the hypothesis of which is that there aren't more women in science because science as a profession sucks and more women are smart enough to be able to realize that. Men, apparently, are just stubbornly stupid adolescents who stick with things even if they aren't economically or emotionally successful.

So, what's wrong with this picture? Simple - it's still making stereotypical assumptions and gross generalizations of what men and women are like. It has the same problem that fired Harvard president Larry Summers, whom the article quotes, did - it assumes that women are naturally a certain way and men are naturally a different way, and that these classifications are absolute, fixed, and past our own improvement.

To which I cordially respond: bullshit.

However valid this article's points may be about the scientific profession, the author is missing some other, vitally important points when it comes to women, careers, and education. First off, I'd like to know, if this hypothesis is correct, why the technology industry experiences the same lack of women. Last time I checked, computing careers aren't exactly stupid career choices to make. Even if we're not still in a tech boom, technology is still a very sustainable and lucrative career path to follow. Yet, at the same time, it's still very much dominated by men.

Is it possible the that "too smart" hypothesis is true for science and there's an entirely different answer to the problem of women in tech? It's possible, but I think extremely unlikely. I have a hard time believing that fields so closely related in the educational sector, with such similar histories of excluding women, have resulted in professional problems that have absolutely no connection to each other whatsoever. It makes much more logical sense that these widespread problems have a common source.

Basically, this is the same kind of thinking that claims women aren't in tech (or science, or engineering) because the stringent time demands and the intensity of the work interferes with their family lives. If I were to suggest that we ought to make those demands and intensity flexible enough to accommodate other needs, I would likely bring about the outraged cries of, "Why should we have to change the rules just for you?" Well, because the rules right now are skewed in your favor, and you're too damn scared and/or lazy to let go of them, that's why.

On a bit of a side note: why do women automatically bear the bigger responsibility for maintaining family life, anyway? Are none of you men in technology or science fathers? Why do you get away with it when mothers don't? Also, why is it assumed that women even want families? Some, I'm sure, are perfectly happy childless.

My point is that these are all profound concerns that the notion of "women being too smart" does not adequately address, regardless of the differences in particular fields in which it is discussed. There is something bigger and deeper than that. Diversity in fields where it currently does not exist will not ever come to exist until we stop trying to rationalize why it's not there and start letting go of the old, biased power structures that keep it out.

Although maybe there is something in the "stubborn adolescent" theory after all - because for all the "intellectualism" of discussions like these, the argument still ends up sounding like a bunch of whiny boys afraid of growing up.

A Portrait of the Developer as a Young Woman

On the heels of my post about female technology stereotypes, it occurs to me I have more to say about the issue - namely, why I care about it so much in the first place.

The simple fact of why I'm so interested in girls' education in technology and related fields is that I wish I had had a better one myself. I think that I fell victim to a lot of the same problems that we discuss plaguing girls now: lack of role models, low self-confidence, and feeling uncomfortable about what I felt I was supposed and not supposed to be doing. Even after I made the decision to pursue computer science (over two years into college), it was an uphill battle. There were very few women I could look up to, or even talk to about it. As I began to work and gain experience in IT, I worked with women, but most had largely come into the field from the administrative sector, not the technical side. As far as technicians went, it was always a group dominated by males. It's hard to find one's footing, and discover what one's true talents are, with so few points of reference. More often, I got asked why I wanted to be there in the first place, rather than help and support. Many times, I felt the message was I just didn't belong there and that I should give up trying to.

My interests prior to studying CS had always been (and still are, in part) the more female-friendly areas of art and English. But when I became fascinated with technology, I wanted to learn about how to use it as profoundly as I could. I tried to create ways to connect and combine the two, which has been easily done when it comes to web design and development. In fact, to this day, in every professional position I've held, I was told my creativity was something my employers valued, because it was rare to find in the technical field, and it added an unique aspect to my technical work. However, I've also been told, for presumably the same reasons, that I'm not the "type" to work in tech.

But people aren't types. They're individuals. There's no reason or need to place them all in little boxes or neat, unbreakable compartments. I think there should be much more fluidity between science and art, creativity and logic, minorities and majorities, men and women. My insistence on education and encouragement for those who aren't receiving it comes directly from my own experience of not receiving it myself. Even now solidly placed on my career path and moving ahead, I still sometimes feel I have to catch up. I'm still generally the only female in my workplaces, and I still have it pointed it out me. Sometimes I wonder how much farther I would be if I had had more support in this line of work. But mostly I just focus on providing it to other girls. Because no matter how loudly the media is yelling about the failures of the spoiled, useless young women who clog our popular culture, or how hard it pushes the male geek stereotype, or how strongly it insists women just naturally have different skillsets - I want girls to know the truth.

The Ridiculous Women & Tech Quote of the Day

As I have mentioned, I'm experimenting with a new blog, Binary Firecracker, to chronicle news and articles related to women and technology. With it, however, I'm trying more of a straight approach with a minimum of commentary - which means when I come across a news piece that begs for commentary, it's going to end up here instead. Thanks to Rush Limbaugh (surprising, huh?), I came across just such a piece. From a recent transcript:

When I lived out in California, I had a car that had a radio that would do an auto-scan of your presets, and it would just scan the stations that were in your presets. The general manager's secretary had to go with me somewhere to some speaking event. We got in the car and I turned on the scan and for like five minutes I didn't stop it because I didn't hear a song that I wanted to hear. I just kept the auto-scan going. "Are you going to stop that at some point?" "No! I haven't got to the song I want to hear." I'm marveling at the technology that my car radio can do this, and she's upset that A, it's happening, and B, that I'm enjoying it -- and she wasn't even my wife! But that doesn't mean she's dumber than I was. It's just different interests, different things intrigue. Like I have my iPhone or I have my computer. It's not enough for me to be able to use it. I want to know how it works so if something goes wrong I can fix it, or I can describe to the tech what it's doing wrong so he can fix it fast. Women don't care. It better come on when you turn it on, and if it doesn't, there will be hell to pay. There won't be any curiosity about why it doesn't work. There will just be anger. This is not anything to do with intelligence. It just has to be with different ways that they use their time. [emphasis mine]

This is why I think talking about women in technology is important. Because there are opinions out there, set deep in our culture, that it is a contradiction in terms. This particular quote is not just an isolated incident of an offhand comment by a right-wing radio host. This is a public expression of a pervasive idea that women working in the technology field have to fight in their daily lives. And it's completely wrong.

I'm a bit tired of the voices that drown out the truth simply because they shout louder. There are plenty of women who are scientists, inventors, engineers and technicians. It doesn't take a lot of searching to turn them up. There are plenty of women interested in the way things work, and how to make them work better - or at all, when they need fixed. Of course, it's also true there probably aren't as many as there are men. But how much of that is related to our own prescribed notions and what we tell our girls they should and shouldn't be doing?

Limbaugh and those of similar opinions should probably just hope they don't ever run into a computer problem they can't fix and end up with someone like me on the other end of the support line. They might get more advice then they bargained for.

My 'Dear John' Letter to Digg

Dear Digg,

We've been on-again/off-again for a while now. I think it's about time we sat down and talked about our relationship, don't you?

You know, I had heard a lot about you before we actually met. We ran in similar circles, were connected to the same blogs, that type of thing. When I finally checked you out, I was pretty impressed. Slick, well-put-together, and (the clincher) useful. So there naturally came a time when I figured you and I should give it a shot.

But, well, we just haven't been able to make it consistently work. I don't think it's you, at least not completely. More to the point, I think it's the company you keep. You see, many of the people that associate with you are smart, funny, and polite. Others, however, are not. Others are immature, sexist, and offensive. And, frankly, it's putting a strain on you and me. Almost always, when I try to join in a conversation with you and these friends, it turns into either a shouting match or swapping of nasty insults. Other times the conversation goes on as if I'm not even there. Now, I know your crowd is mostly guys and not a lot of girls hang around you - but, from this girl's perspective, it's just not fun.

I'm a little tired of the seemingly endless comments about women being "golddiggers" (I work full-time to be the breadwinner for my family), not being able to understand or operate technology (that work I do - it's in tech support and web design, and I have a computer science education), and only interested in shopping, jewelry, and clothes (I'm also a mom, and most of my extra money goes to things for my daughter - I haven't bought new clothes in over a year). Those are all things I've heard at some point when I'm with you, Digg. If it were once in a while, I'd ignore it and move on. But it's a regular occurrence. Even after I take a break from you for a while, I come back to find the same thing happening, over and over again.

Look - I really like you. You have great principles and are into things I want to know and talk about. But the mob that surrounds you too often drowns everything else out. And I don't think I can do it anymore.

Sure, I think we can still be friends. I'll still stop by to check out how you are, what's going on. Don't think I'm being rude by holding myself away from the crowd. It's just not my crowd, and I think I'm better off on my own.

Lots of love,

Jen

The Trials of a Skinny Feminist

The Skinny FeministRecently, the blog Modern Mechanix posted a vintage ad for Kelp-O-Malt tablets, a wondrous innovation that helped young women of the mid-century reach one of their most desired goals - that of gaining lots of weight.

What a strange, alternative world that must have been, a world where "naturally skinny" girls glare in envy at those with full figures. Or, just my world. I've been exceptionally skinny my whole life, and I've always disliked it. It's not something you can really complain about, though, at least without incurring the wrath and/or disdain of all your female friends.

It's even harder if you happen to dabble in feminism. Because if you're skinny, you're obviously that way because you diet to excess or inflict yourself with eating disorders, and therefore are simply a tool of the patriarchal value system that places undue pressure on women to conform to a specific, unnatural body image. If by chance you aren't dieting like a fiend or practicing anorexia, well, then you're just lucky the culture skews in your favor and you should probably just stay out of the fray.

At least that's what I seem to be told all the time. Perhaps sometimes in nicer language, but the meaning is essentially the same - you don't understand and therefore have no valid opinion. I feel as if that if I were to stand up in favor of more natural depictions of women in media, everyone would look at me and my 105 pounds askance, and dismiss what I had to say on principle.

I can't stay out of the conversation, though. Because I am a feminist, and a big sister to a teenage girl, and a mother to a daughter. I care very much what message girls are getting about their health and bodies. And an exceptionally thin woman keeping quiet about those issues, I think will come across as the wrong message.

The point of all this is that I think we should shift our battles in the war on female images from an issue of fat vs. thin to one about revealing and appreciating each individual's natural attributes. Most people don't fit into one of those two narrowly-defined categories anyway, and there's a ton of factors that can skew the balance - and most of them are out of an individual's control.

How can you tell whether or not a woman's low weight is natural or a product of medical problems? Simple - get to know her before we pass judgment. If that's not possible - in the case of celebrities we have no direct contact with - maybe we should forestall judgment altogether. Don't we have better things to worry about, anyway?

I hear many stories about women's frustration and annoyance with naturally thin friends who try to downplay their weight and act like they're just the same size as everyone else. Why do you think these women do this? Probably because they're tired as hell of being picked on, however enviously, for their size, which is something they just can't help any more than naturally larger people can. We've made it socially unacceptable to make fun of fat people, but skinny people are apparently fair game. What exactly is the difference?

And, yes, it is quite true that some people are just skinny, by nature and by natural inclination. I, personally, am 5'6" and have never weighed more than 115 pounds. Including during my pregnancy. I have weighed much, much less, mostly due to stress and anxiety, which is nothing to tease someone about. Now I do exercise, especially running, but this has nothing to do with my weight and more to do with that same stress. Exercising relieves it, as well as actually stimulates my appetite. I am currently gaining much-needed pounds by eating healthily and running regularly. That type of lifestyle is not about making me fatter, or thinner - it's about making me as healthy as I'm intended to be.

I think feminists and those who care about issues which affect our young women need to let go of the pointed attacks on skinniness and take a positive approach to appreciating different body types in general. We're not doing the awkward, flat-chested young women any favors by making them feel guilty about being a way that they're not even comfortable with in the first place, and the almost-obsessive concentration we give to tearing down thin girls is hardly admirable. I think we'd make a lot more progress by not defining our stances in negative terms.

It's also quite possible that the backlash against the rail-thin female ideal is just the beginning of another cultural change. After all, it was only a little more than fifty years ago that more flesh on a woman was not only expected, but desired. Who's to say that in another fifty, we won't be cycling back to that? But here's the real question - if we just trade one image for another, are we really making progress?

Note: Image from another vintage ad sample at AdvertisingLab.

This Is What She's Invented

Science GirlsOne of the top stories on Digg the other day was Google search results: "'She invented' ... did you mean 'He invented?'" It was the result of an argument between a boyfriend and girlfriend about how women had not invented anything significant, and it would appear that Google is on the boyfriend's side. But the internet itself says otherwise. So I took the opportunity to write an article about exactly what she has invented.

  • Grace Hopper: You may refer to her as "Admiral." She developed the very first compiler for computer programming languages, and was a recognized pioneer in the computing field, with extensive military accomplishments. More here, and here.
  • Ida Henrietta Hyde: She invented the microelectrode, which "electrically (or chemically) stimulates a living cell and records the electrical activity within that cell" (source). More here.
  • Isabella Karle: She developed new methods of x-ray crystallography, using electron diffraction and then x-ray diffraction to study molecule structure. More here.
  • Stephanie Kwolek: She invented Kevlar, which has been used in a range of products from bicycles to body armor. More here.
  • Rosalyn Sussman Yalow: She was one of two scientists who created the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique, which helps detect diseases such as diabetes. More here.
  • Mary Anderson: She invented the windshield wiper. Not as glamorous, perhaps, but I bet you'd have a hard time without it. More here.
  • Hedy Lamarr: The classic Hollywood actress who also co-created a significant method of frequency hopping, an early form of spread-spectrum technology, which is the basis for much of modern wireless communication. More here.

More links:

Hope that helps. Repost as much as necessary to teach Google the new lesson.

(Photo credit: Dan MacDonald.)