Monday, June 1, 2015

Emma Sulkowicz's “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)”

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has been hauling a mattress around campus in protest to how her sexual assault case against student Paul Nungesser was carried out. Her alleged attacker was cleared of responsibility. I was recently talking to my brother about Emma Sulkowicz and her “Mattress Performance” that she has been doing since last fall. My brother goes to Columbia University, and has seen Sulkowicz carrying this mattress on campus. I learned that on her graduation day, which was just a few days ago, May 19, she carried her mattress on stage with her to receive her diploma. And the president of the university did not shake her hand. Her choice to carry her mattress onstage is very controversial. After all, commencement means to start, or to begin, so perhaps this would have been a good time to try and relieve her burden, and start fresh. However, this burden will never really leave her, and while she could have put down her mattress, the weight of the burden will sadly stay with her forever.

I then became interested in how this all happened and started researching about the case. I came across a New York Times Magazine article by Emily Bazelon entitled, “Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” This article looked at the story through different lenses, Sulkowicz’s and Nungesser’s, to provide a more complete story of what happened.

Sulkowicz and Nungesser were engaged in a relationship prior to the assault, which is part of what makes this particular case not so black-and-white. But despite this, she has chosen to take a stand against what she knows is a serious issue, both personally and for all victims. The “Mattress Performance” was a “powerful image of a woman publicly shouldering the burden of a violation she felt in her bedroom” (Bazelon). She felt violated and felt the university did not properly handle her hearing, and she dealt with her burden in a way that made the issue unable to be ignored any longer. It demanded to be talked about, because she was carrying around a 50 pound mattress to all her classes.

What Sulkowicz did was a brave act, standing up for sexual assault victims everywhere, and highlighting the sad fact that universities often deal with these cases poorly, not hearing the victim out. Perhaps her bravery will even inspire other victims to speak out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Problems with the "Abortion Roadblock"

Twenty-six states have now imposed a mandatory waiting period between the day when a woman first visits an abortion clinic and the day she is actually allowed to get an abortion, according to an article in The Atlantic entitled "Waiting Periods and the Rising Price of Abortion," written by Olga Khazan. This ends up raising the overall cost of having an abortion, because women must make now arrangements twice in order to have one. As Khazan puts it, it is just "another attempt by pro-lifers to bring about the end of abortion by a thousand restrictions."

It brings up a point we discussed today in class. To what extent can the government get involved in the choices that people make? For instance, the government regulates the restrictions on tobacco, creating a sort of "sin-tax" (a heightened price on the product in the hopes to discourage people from "sinning"). The "sinning," in this case, would be getting an abortion. It is clear that these pro-life lawmakers imposing these laws feel this way, based on their language alone. In The Atlantic article, Missouri state Senator David Sater said he is "sure that the unborn child would like to see an extra 48 hours for the mother to decide on whether or not to have the abortion." He turns it around on the woman, questioning her right to make the decision herself.

This waiting period is yet another hurdle women are now forced to go through. A woman who goes to an abortion clinic has already made an incredibly difficult decision. She does not need yet another hurdle in her way. If she has other children, she must make arrangements for them, like childcare. She would have to take off from work, most likely losing pay for that day. She would also have to make arrangements to get to the clinic, which can be hours away, and expensive to travel to. Once she actually gets to the clinic, she is told to think about it and come back in 2 or 3 days, having to endure it all over again, which is emotionally and financially draining. This waiting period "made abortion more expensive by 48% for poor women" (Khazan). Abortion now has a sin-tax that is affecting women, especially poor women, who have even more trouble getting past these financial hurdles.

Aside from the financial part or this issue, are women gaining anything from this mandatory delay? 75% of women said they "couldn't name a single benefit of the waiting period" (Khazan). I would argue that the majority of women who seek out and travel to an abortion clinic have already come to their very difficult decision. But that decision gets questioned as soon as they walk in the door. Shouldn't this just be a choice a woman gets to make?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Working Mother

I recently came across a New York Times article entitled “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers” by Claire Cain Miller that displayed a shocking statistic: 41% of adults think the increase in working mothers is “bad for society.” I was stunned. Nearly half the population still thinks mothers should be kept out of the work force.

However, there is evidence that being raised by a working mother has enormous benefits for children. In the United States, “daughters of working mothers earned 23% more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers” (Miller). And it wasn’t just daughters who were impacted: “sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care… and were significantly more likely to have a wife who worked” (Miller). So that 41% who claim that a working mother has a negative influence on her children and therefore on society may have failed to think about the impact that a strong female role model will have on children. It is undeniable that having a mother in the workforce sets a good example for impressionable children. These mothers serve as role models who are combating gender stereotypes and encouraging their kids to do the same.

Some question the correlation in this study. Does a working mother actually cause her daughter to work? There are are most definitely other factors that go into this, like education for example, or where a child is brought up. Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn is the author of the study, and has controlled the data for factors like “age, education, and family makeup,” but the effects do not shrink significantly at all. Miller claims that “either way,” the study is a “shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children;” we are moving “toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family.” Even if there are other forces impacting the data, the study has put to rest the falsehood that a working mother is “bad for society.” It’s really just about a tolerance we need to develop for different choices people are making regarding their family life. It is not about discouraging stay-at-home moms; it's about encouraging a mother's choice to work.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

America and The "Middle Class"

Recently in class we have been discussing the topic of class and classism. I came across an article a few days ago in The Atlantic entitled "What Does 'Middle Class' Even Mean?" written by Gillian B. White. It talks about class perception and how people choose to identify to one particular class. We discussed in class how it is the American way to identify as Middle Class, but what does that term really mean? Some would argue it is the middle 50% of Americans (their income is more than the bottom 25% and less than the top 25%). In 2013, the Survey of Consumer Finances stated that these are families with incomes "between $24,000 to $90,000." But if you take into account other factors besides solely income, like property or "liabilities," this same "middle class" expands to an enormous spectrum. This would mean the middle class would have "anywhere between $9,000 to $317,000." Families within this range would lead entirely different lives.

So maybe class is not about dividing up people based on income. Class can be "as much about perception and comparison as it is about measurable metrics, like money" (White). It's not just a socioeconomic matter, it's a way of life. Class does not just mean money, it's largely about self-perception and comparing yourself to those around you. In class, we were asked to try to place ourselves into one class category. The fact that we live in a very wealthy area definitely had an impact on people’s own perceptions of their class. A similar survey has been going on at a national level: Gallup began collecting data in 2000, inquiring what class people identified as. Here are the results:

Michael Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois gives an explanation of this graph. We are facing a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and this inequality often results in a tendency for people to compare themselves to one another even more. So, while someone may actually be closer to middle class income-wise, they identify as lower because of this enormous gap between the rich and poor. More and more people are perceiving themselves as "falling out of middle class." This is a problem for America because it affects people's view of social mobility. They have less hope that they can move up classes.

We see this theme of social mobility throughout The Great Gatsby, as well. The "American Dream" narrative arc is one that is at the core of our country, which is why Gatsby is so fascinating to us. We find out his parents were actually poor farm people and "his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all" (Fitzgerald 98). He chose to not "accept" this class he was born into; he rejected it entirely. He created a new persona he aspired to become and "to this conception he was faithful to the end" (98). He did all that he could to achieve his dream, the American Dream, and ended up succeeding, moving from lower, to middle, to upper class.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An American Narrative

While researching my junior theme topic, I came across another reason why there exists such a fear of aging in America and why there is such a huge market for things like Botox treatments or "anti-aging" face creams. It all has to do with America's beloved narrative arc. 

Earlier in the year, our class studied Kurt Vonnegut’s piece “A Lesson in Creative Writing” in which he maps out the narrative arc that America loves to see in television and films.

Man in a Hole Narrative Arc

      This arc is also referred to as the “Redemptive Arc,” and it goes back to the roots of Christianity. This is likely a subconscious factor that is playing into peoples’ decisions to get plastic surgery in order to look younger. In the book “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,” edited by Lilly J. Goren, there is extensive research on what is referred to as “sacrificial atonement.” The book states the “promise” of sacrificial atonement is that "through suffering, death has been overcome” and that these surgeries promise “the illusion that decay can be ‘treated’” (24). This "suffering" is referring to the actual physical pain of a cosmetic surgery, or perhaps the cost. And while the idea of cheating death, or "treating" it, is impossible, it is something that people, especially women, are continuously trying to achieve.
This psychological reasoning behind wanting to look younger perfectly follows the narrative drawn above. From "Beginning" to "End" on the graph: A woman starts out healthy and youthful; as the woman ages, she feels her looks are fading; she undergoes a painful procedure to "fix" this problem, and is back where she started, in "Good Fortune", looking and feeling youthful.

We see this archetype in television all the time too: the woman's goal is to look as young as possible. A character that comes to mind is Madame Lalaurie from American Horror Story: Coven, who was obsessed with looking youthful. There weren't face-lifts during the time that she lived, so she resorted to a horrifying method. She murdered her slaves and used their blood as a sort of anti-aging skin product: she would spread it on her face each night. Her extreme and sickening measures she went to in order to feel young "payed off" for her because she felt it made her skin look young again. This character would do anything to maintain her youthful complexion.
This is also why America is obsessed with "makeover" shows. There is a "man in a hole"(a person who is not conventionally attractive), and the show helps this person to get out of this "hole," and discover their true beauty. "The internal self is matched with the external" (Goren 25) is something we love seeing on television. Our psychological attachment to this narrative is playing an enormous role in our everyday lives.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Older Women as Role Models

      While doing some research for my junior theme earlier in the week, I started looking at TED Talks and began taking notes on one I found interesting, entitled Women Should Represent Women in Media.” I found the topic interesting, but realized it did not in fact relate to my junior theme. The TED talk sounded promising at first, since the speaker opens by talking about why she joined the Journalism and Women Symposium: “I wanted female role models.” While the Talk is about women in the media, it focuses on the “incomplete story” we are getting because of the underrepresentation of women as news reporters and sources. This might be too much of a leap to try to work this in to my paper, which is about the underrepresentation of older women in television and films. 

      But when the speaker said the words “female role models,” it made me think of another way this misrepresentation of women in television and films has an effect on our society. Girls and women need older female role models to look up to, and there are almost none. An interview was conducted  by “Mother Jones” magazine with director Jennifer Seibel Newsom (director of the documentary Miss Representation.) Seibel says that “aging is a beautiful thing; wisdom is a beautiful thing. Frankly, as a woman who's getting older in our culture, I want to see stories about women who are before me, so I can be inspired—because someday I'll be there.” The effects of this underrepresentation of older women does impact women of all ages.

      I also began looking at some new books that related to my junior theme topic this week,“The Girl on the Magazine Cover” by Carolyn Kitch explores the stereotypes of women in the media. This book will provide more of the "historical look-back" part of my paper. A passage I found very interesting was about the changing times which seemed to bring about this obsession with youth. On a cover of a 1925 Good Housekeeping, showed a mother reading to her child. The mother was "no longer a Victorian matron, the Jazz age mother was slim and pretty, a youthful woman urged to follow the advice of a 1927 Palmolive Soap ad... that reminded readers to 'Keep That Schoolgirl Complexion' long 'after school days" (145). It will be interesting to delve deeper as to why America is fixated on youth. I also began reading a book this weekend called “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,” edited by Lilly J. Goren, which is about women in popular culture, which will offer a more current view on the subject. I found that the indexes were very helpful, but when I began reading the book without using the index I also found I was able to read about topics that related to my “why” question, just not as specifically. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Age and the Entertainment Industry

For my topic for Junior Theme, I wanted to focus on portrayals of women in television and movies. As I narrowed down my "WHY" question, I decided to look at the reasons why we seem to only be seeing young women in films and television; why is aging in the entertainment industry a positive for men, but a negative for women?

I watched two documentaries that dealt with this topic of portrayals of women in the media. The first was called "Miss Representation," available on Netflix. The documentary interviews several women and men on this topic. A quote stood out to me as I was watching. Gloria Steinem, a feminist organizer and writer and the cofounder of Women's Media Center, said that "a male-dominant system, a patriarchal system, values women as child-bearers, period. So it limits their value to the time that they are sexually active, reproductively active, and become much less valuable after that." I had never really thought about age this way before, and why youthfulness is so valued in our society. It could really be as primal as the fact that there exists a window in which a woman is fertile.

Later in "Miss Representation," PhD Martha Lauzen discussed a striking statistic that 
women in their 20's and 30's make up 71% of women on TV. 
"What we see on broadcast television is that the majority of female characters are in their 20's and 30's. That is just a huge misrepresentation of reality, and that really skews our perceptions." It is saying something interesting about our society that women who are over 40 actually account for 47% of our population in the U.S, but are only making up 26% of women on television. Why are only young women given the spotlight?

I watched a second documentary titled "Killing Us Softly 4," available on YouTube. It made me think about cosmetic surgery being an aspect of an answer to my "WHY" question. I learned that 91% of cosmetic procedures are performed on women, and from 1997 to 2007, there was a 754% increase in non-surgical procedures like botox and laser treatment. Botox makes the face look tighter, and more youthful. What sparked this intense need for women to look younger? Jean Kilbourne, the writer of "Killing Us Softly" explores this when she says that "This contempt for women who do not measure up is waiting for all of us of course eventually as we age, so no wonder there's such a terror of showing any signs of aging." Women in America seem desperate to turn back the clock and look like a younger version of themselves, why is this?