Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Girl skateboarders are cool

I’m so used to seeing, over the past couple of decades, groups of boys skateboarding or one lone girl skateboarder amongst a group of boys.

Recently, though, I’ve seen a few groups of girl skateboarders walking (with boards) or skateboarding around San Francisco, and I have to say it’s refreshing. It’s cool to see these youngsters going against the traditional gender roles.

It kind of reminds me of the boy cheerleaders in Leeds.

Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Stupid husbands and smart wives on TV

If you’ve seen any American sitcoms featuring het couples in the past ten years or so, you’ll probably have noticed that it’s common for the show to portray the husbands as a stupid but endearing oaf who likes beer, barbecues, watching TV, hanging with the guys, and ogling women; and the wife as a smart, attractive, career woman who is also a housewife… and who generally just puts up with the man.

Some people have tried to use this as evidence that feminism has gone too far, but I have seen no indication from feminist writers or bloggers that they approve of this dynamic. Granted, I don’t hear a lot of feminist outcry over it either, but it is worth nothing that feminists do not celebrate the gender dynamic in popular husband-wife sitcoms like King of Queens, The Simpsons, George Lopez, or Rules of Engagement.

I do think the dynamic comes from a combination of sociological factors and political light-stepping, though. First of all, there are several types of humor—slapstick, irony, insult, shock… just to give a few examples. Sitcoms, especially those featuring a family, have decided to go the insult way. Slapstick humor still packs the theaters (think Will Ferell and Ben Stiller), but it cannot sustain a several-seasons-long show for adults. Irony takes too much set-up time, and my feeling is that people are sick of seeing too many Three’s Company and Golden Girls episodes to put up with more of that Shakespearean “smart” humor. Shock humor is better suited for stand-up comedy, and at least on American non-cable television (where swear words are verboten) cannot be utilized to its fullest extent… which generally leaves (with the exception of Seinfeld) insult humor.

Now, as we have seen on Will and Grace, insult humor can go multiple directions (basically come from any character directed at another character), but I think it isn’t feminism per se that’s informing studios’ choices about how that humor takes its form as the studios’ perception of feminism. They know if the woman insults the men that men will take it because they don’t want to be perceived as having thin skins or not being able to take a joke (after all, those would be “unmanly” reactions), and they know if a man insults a woman, women will find it ungentlemanly and feminists will be up in arms about the woman-hating on television.

I do think, to combat this notion that it’s feminism that’s behind this depiction of men as oafs, feminists should speak up in objection to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, I don’t believe feminism is responsible for this dynamic ultimately, for two reasons.

When is it “okay” to make fun of someone? I work in a school. If some students did a skit making fun of the faculty, I’m sure everyone would enjoy it, including the faculty. If some faculty, however, did a skit making fun of the students, no one would find that funny, not even the other faculty. That isn’t right, since the faculty are in authority and would be abusing their power. Likewise, we as citizens of our government can safely make fun of politicians and draw caricatures of them in cartoons. If a politician made fun of a political cartoonist or regular citizen, however, it would be viewed as being in bad taste, since the politician is in a position of power and is abusing that power. It’s the same reason kids can make fun of their parents and parents shouldn’t make fun of their kids. In other words, backwards as it may seem to some who would like to think of the poor husbands as victims, the husband-wife sitcom is about as antifeminist as you can get, since it still shows men to be the “head of the household” that can take a joke.

Also it is a traditional marriage (not one of equality or even of female domination), in which the men fit traditional gender roles (ogling women, drinking beer, sitting on the couch watching TV) and the women fit traditional gender roles as well (putting up with men, cooking dinner, shopping, henpecking). It’s actually the perfect situation for men, for several reasons.

  • It reaffirms traditional gender roles.
  • It allows for men to identify with the husbands as being henpecked.
  • It allows men to complain that feminism has made it so men look stupid.

If studios really wanted to take feminism into account, they wouldn’t make sure to have the woman be attractive (she could be, but she wouldn’t have to be), the marriage would be more evenly divided (the man could take care of the kids or cook dinner), either party could be ogling other people or actually be totally faithful (not just “I work up my appetite elsewhere, but I always come home for dinner” sexuality). Stop blaming the feminists for this one, seriously.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Threshold of Pain

I just did a Google search for “threshold of pain men women.” One result was “Women More Sensitive to Pain than Men”; another was Women are the Hardier Sex…. Funnily enough, both results were from the same news site.

Those findings confirm what I’ve long suspected, though. When people say (and they often do) that women have a “higher pain threshold,” they are often imprecise in their phrasing. It’s important to make a distinction between tolerance and onset when talking about thresholds. What the former article seems to indicate is that women, in fact, have a lower threshold when it comes to the onset of pain. I’ve also found this to be true anecdotally. If I happen to accidentally touch or land upon my wife in the wrong place, she’ll scream out in pain, whereas I would likely just say “ouch” softly if the same were to happen to me. Women get hurt more easily, it seems.

The latter article points to what most people mean when they say women have a “higher pain threshold”—women have, in fact, a higher threshold when it comes to pain tolerance. The onset of pain may come more quickly or easily for women, but women are able to tolerate more pain than a man could. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I have a couple of examples, one from fiction, one from experience.

In the screen adaption of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Gerardo tells his wife that he wouldn’t have survived even a day of torture. He would have given her away right away. He would have told them anything. His wife, on the other hand, was tortured for months and revealed nothing. Now, it’s likely that Gerardo would not have felt certain lighter forms of torture to be painful, yet once the pain came, he would not be able to stand it. Paulina, his wife, however, felt various levels of pain but never cracked.

In my own experience, as a former runner (I ran track for my four years of high school), it seemed to me that the women runners seemed to be in pain (complaining and just looking wretched) after a not-so-strenuous workout. The men, however, could run a decent workout without feeling much pain at all. Being a typical man, though, myself, I found that once the pain came, I could not go any further. Try as I might, I was unable to accelerate and barely able to continue once the pain came on. My pain tolerance was nil.

Let’s be precise in our language. First of all, I should qualify this as we should any generalizations about gender—these are all sweeping statements based on the majority of each group in the sociological context in which we live. Secondly, there are at least two thresholds of pain: the threshold of the onset of pain and the threshold of the intolerance of pain.

Edit: After the years it’s been since I originally wrote this, the links have long since died, so I reGoogled and found what I think were the articles I linked to (but archived on different sites). It’s interesting to see how people can’t believe the first article, since they make no distinction between onset and endurance of pain.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Double Standards

This essay is in response to the following letter, which was originally published in the August 2004 issue of San Francisco magazine:

Lesbians with Attitude
After reading Diana Kapp’s “The L Weird” in your July issue, I couldn’t help but think how hypercritical the lesbian women in the story are. They struggle to tolerate “clueless straight people” in their everyday lives and have “perfected the eye roll” for dumb questions. They admit they socialize mainly with other lesbians, because straight people just don’t get it.

The women you interviewed come off as elitist and exclusionary. They want tolerance and acceptance, yet they offer none in return. What if straight people said how exasperated they were by clueless lesbians? You’d better believe those same lesbians would be crying foul faster than you can say “dyke march.”

If we want to be accepted, we have to practice what we preach. And yes, I am a lesbian, too.

Marie Taylor
San Francisco

First of all, I have to say that treating people equally does not mean treating them the same. Straight people are definitely in a different situation than gay people are in. If that weren’t the case, Ms. Taylor wouldn’t have to end her letter with the proclamation that she is a lesbian—messages would stand alone themselves. Ms. Taylor knows, though, that messages do not stand alone themselves. Messengers are often equally as important as the messages themselves. By extension, a lesbian woman rolling her eyes at clueless straight people is not the same as a straight person rolling her eyes at a clueless lesbian.

I’d be interested to hear just what would make a lesbian “clueless” to a straight person? I don’t think Ms. Taylor’s hypothetical scenario exists. It’s argument for the sake argument—it’s not rooted in reality at all. Ask any lesbian “What ignorant questions have straight people ever asked you?” and she’ll likely come up with a whole slew of them right away. As a straight person, I can’t think of a single ignorant question any lesbian or gay man has ever asked me relating to sexuality. Even though I myself am not gay, it’s easy for even me to think of some stupid questions straight people might ask lesbians: “So when are you going to get a boyfriend?” “Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Maybe you just haven’t had a real man yet.” “You’re going to have a kid? How? Lesbians can’t reproduce.”

The truth of the matter is—and if Ms. Taylor really is a lesbian, she would know this—heterosexuality isn’t just heterosexuality; it’s heteronormativity. It is the dominant sexual culture in America. And the dominant culture generally tends to be the one that asks ignorant and “clueless” questions of the marginalized cultures. As a man, I’m rarely asked questions that annoy me because of their ignorance. As an Asian-American, I’m asked these questions quite frequently. As a college-educated person (which means I’m numerically in the minority but also still in the dominant educational culture), I’m almost never asked questions out of ignorance. As a devout (i.e., not nominal) Christian, I frequently encounter ignorance and prejudice.

It’s only natural for marginalized cultures to want to make “safe” spaces for themselves from annoyingly ignorant questions, from misunderstanding and prejudice. Separatism has its benefits, just as integration does as well. I challenge Ms. Taylor to take a poll of straight people: “When was the last time you had to roll your eyes because a lesbian asked you a stupid question about your sexuality?” The fact of the matter is most lesbians, at one point or another, in an effort to fit in, tried “being” straight, but far fewer straight women have tried “being” lesbian.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

The Slut/Stud Double Standard

Everyone—even backlash-prone, conservative anti-feminists—agrees that there is a slut-stud double standard. Do I even need to tell you what that double standard is? I don’t think I need to explain it. You’ve heard it a thousand times, probably. People do tend to disagree about whether that double standard is justified in any way. Some people say it somehow stems from evolution, as if all the heterosexual men who are sleeping around really want to get all their “conquests” pregnant (and what about gay men, then?). Those who oppose the double standard make it all sound so simple, though: let’s just not call promiscuous women “sluts” and not call promiscuous men “studs.”

Obviously that approach hasn’t worked. I’ve known many who have tried it. Yet, many of my most ardent feminist friends, in a moment of low self-monitoring have uttered—maybe even unconsciously—the word slut in reference to a woman who “sleeps around” or who even dresses in a less-than-dignified fashion. We need to go beyond the name, beyond the word, to the root of the problem. As all critics of “political correctness” know, changing people’s language is only a start—you must also change how people think.

Now, you have to understand, first of all, one essential way in which the slut-stud double standard gets perpetuated, and it is not through mere name-calling alone. Right now, if you take any randomly selected heterosexual man and ask him, “How easy would it be for you to sleep with ten different women in the next week?” he will most likely, in all truthfulness, say, “It’s impossible,” or “It’s possible, but it would be very difficult.” (This is all, of course, hypothetically assuming that he would want to sleep with ten different women in a week.) If you posed a similar question to a randomly selected heterosexual woman about sleeping with ten different men in a week, though, the odds go up that she would respond, “Easy, very easy.”

Right or wrong, we admire “studs” not only because we live in a patriarchal culture, but because there is a certain admiration for someone who, however disgustingly to us, can accomplish what is not easy to accomplish. We also look down on people who give away what is much sought-after.

Naturally, you would say this is a “vicious cycle,” right? You would say, “Well, it’s because of the double standard itself that women are told not to ‘give away’ their sexuality, and men are told to ‘conquer’ women’s sexuality.” Of course it is—I’m not denying that. I am saying, though, that even if we disagree with the system of sexual judgment or its origins, we still have to recognize that it is easier for a woman to have sex with many men than it is for a man to have sex with many women.

So, the solution is not just to resist uttering the s-word whenever you see a woman you deem as less-than-virtuous. A revolution has to happen. Men have to stop giving it up so easily—men have to be desired, to be “conquered,” too. Women, in turn, need to take a risk and be more “slutty.” We need to achieve a balance through behavior and desire. We have to stop subscribing to the myth that a man must take every opportunity he can to have sex with a woman. We have to stop believing that woman have to “save” themselves any more than men do for some “special person.”

I’m not saying all women should sleep around. In fact, I’m personally (though, not politically) against pre-marital or promiscuous sex for both sexes, but seeing as how most Americans do not subscribe to the “abstinence-only” approach, we must recognize that as long as any promiscuous or pre-marital sex exists, it should be viewed as equally respectable or disrespectable for both sexes, and that can happen only if people start shifting their own personal attitudes and desires. We can’t just withhold the uttering of the name slut or stud.

Further reading:

“Blame One of the Sexes”
“Shades of Desire”
“Worse Than Sticks or Stones, the ‘Slut’ Label Cuts Deep”
“The Double Standard Thrives”
“Slut vs. Stud, the sexual double standard”
“Hot for Teacher – Debra LaFave”
“Sex Sobers in Controversial Sundance Documentary”
“Sleeping around? Do it with class!”

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Fighting Gender Role Boundaries

While there is a difference between sexism and the reaffirmation of gender roles, the two are certainly linked. I realize, as most feminists have to concede, that there are inherent differences in trends between males and females. The question, though, is whether we should exacerbate and exaggerate such differences or just allow the “natural” ones and allow people to be who they are. In other words, if the majority of men (let’s say 80% or so) fit into a male stereotype (overly preoccupied with sex, weight-lifting, making money, using their “masculine” voices, etc.) and the minority of men do not fit into that stereotype (say 20%), why should we force that 20% minority to adopt the majority behavior? Can’t we just live with a general trend existing? Does it have to be a unilateral trend—polarizing femininity and masculinity? As a male in the minority, unafraid of both feminism and femininity, I’ve always resented ways in which both men and women, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. Here are practical ways not to do so:

1. Don’t ask men to lift and carry things. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve heard it before—men on the whole have more upper-body strength than women on the whole. Two things to consider, here, though. First of all, some men aren’t “on the whole.” Some men are quite weak (uh, me, for instance), and some women are quite strong. So, rather than saying, “Can I get a few strong men to help me move x, y, and z?” you can say, “Can I get a few strong people to help me move x, y, and z?” That way, a strong woman won’t feel left out, and a weak man won’t feel obligated to help out. If you happen to get a bunch of guys seeking to be macho, then it’s not your fault. The other consideration is that most of the time things that need to be lifted, carried, or moved are not that heavy. We’re talking chairs, small bags, books, etc. most of the time. Anyone of any gender, no matter how “weak,” can carry a book or two. I’ve seen this scenario happen in a number of different “enlightened” environments, not just conservative Christian churches.

2. Never assume someone shares the same values as you just because she or he shares your gender. I can’t tell you how many men have made inappropriate remarks to me in the assumption that I, too, revelled in their inappropriateness. How many husbands or men have said, “Ah, women!” to me about their wives, as if I would commiserate. How many nudge, nudge, winks, winks have I gotten from sexist men who just want to “tap some ass”? I’m talking Christian and non-Christian men, here. In fact, many Christian men are more sex-obsessed and sexist than their non-Christian counterparts. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I share the values, desires, and experiences of other men. This is something for both men and women to remember. I’m sure analagous situations apply for women assuming other women share the same values.

3. Don’t assume gender is the reason for action or opinion. Let’s say I like computers. Let’s say I enjoy a good action flick. Let’s say I don’t wear dark clothing. Let’s say I listen to hard rock. If any of these statements are true, it’s not “Oh, that’s ’cause you’re a guy.” Now, I don’t operate under the illusion that every choice one makes is an individual choice, regardless of societal values and messages. Just read my other article about individual choice. Still, it’s not up to someone who doesn’t know you well to attribute actions or thoughts to sociological forces. That requires a great deal of self-examination.

I’m sure there are other ways you can avoid unnecessarily reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes, but the above three are a good start. Go, and sin no more.