Monday, February 21, 2011

What's Wrong With Articles Like "Why You're Not Married"

I recently read Tracy McMillan's article "Why You're Not Married," in which McMillan purports to know the reasons that you, the (female) reader, are not married. The article doesn't say anything new, but it does rehash a lot of stereotypes about unmarried women.

Because I hear a lot of people defend this and similar articles, I thought it would be useful to break down the basics of why some of these arguments are fallacious. I didn't have the space to analyze every bad argument, so I picked out what I thought to be the main problems.

Faulty Argument #1: Hasty Generalizations

A hasty generalization occurs when a person draws a general conclusion from a pool of evidence too small to accurately represent a population at large.

"The problem is not men, it's you."

"You're a liar."
"Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them...female anger terrifies men."

The logic behind McMillan's statements is that since she has known a number of women to be "the problem" (whatever that means) in their relationships, she can safely say that the same is true for her female reader, whoever she may be. This is a faulty argument because McMillan does not have the data necessary to determine whether her personal experience is true on a greater scale.

Faulty Argument #2: General Stereotyping/ Sexism
Stereotypes are a subset of hasty generalizations, but this seemed like an easy way to organize the post.

Stereotypes, the basis of all of the -isms, are in some ways tricky to deal with. To a certain extent, you have to be familiar with specific ones in order to recognize them when they occur. It's easy to recognize a stereotype when someone makes a broad statement like, "all Irish people are drunks." But not all stereotypical statements are phrased this obviously.

If you're trying to determine whether a given statement employs a stereotype, here's a fairly easy three-step process to go by:

Step 1: Ask yourself, "what was, or would have been, said about [this group of people] 100 years ago, that we generally find ridiculous today?" Example: "women shouldn't vote."

Step 2: Try to boil this old-timey racism/ sexism/ etc. down to its essence. Ask yourself, "why did people think this?" Example: People thought women shouldn't vote because they thought women should be demure, that a woman's place was in the home, that households would fall apart if women participated in politics, etc.

Step 3: Ask yourself if you could argue that any of that sentiment is present in the statement at hand. If you could, you're probably dealing a stereotype.

Remember that stereotypes usually stick around for long periods of time. They change form and become more subtle, but they don't die quickly.

Example: "You're angry...and it's scaring men off. Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them. ..female anger terrifies men."

You could reasonably make the case that this statement touches on the same sentiment that our anti-suffrage example did. How does it do so? By implying that female anger is not acceptable. If women should not act angry, we can infer that some of the ways they should act are: poised, calm, composed, and a host of other words that mean the same thing as "demure." These traits have been associated with femininity since long before the days of women's suffrage.

What about men?
Sexism cuts both ways! McMillan's statement plays into the stereotype that men are moronic simpletons who need a woman's touch in order to be function. Often, the corollary to a sexist statement about women is an equally sexist statement about men. If men can't handle occasionally seeing a woman angry, what does that say about them? It makes them sound like they have the mental faculties of a three-year-old.

McMillan also states that living with her 13-year-old son is "like living with the single-cell protozoa version of a husband." I would ask, "why?" Once again, there is no reason to believe that her son, who only wants out of life "macaroni and cheese, a video game, and Kim Kardashian," is representative of any population of present or future husbands. In other words, just because her son has X,Y or Z quality doesn't mean that anyone else does.

Additionally, even if McMillan could make a solid case that "female anger terrifies men," it is unreasonable to assert that women should accept this fact and adjust their behavior accordingly. "I never want to see my partner angry" would be an unreasonable demand. McMillan thinks that you should give into your hypothetical male partner's wants simply because they are his wants. But a person's wants are not reasonable by default. If they inflict significant discomfort (however you define that) onto the other person, they are not reasonable demands. I would argue that telling your partner to sit on her emotions would cause her significant discomfort.

Some general guidelines to critically reading articles like this:
-Keep in mind established stereotypes that you already know. Google around to find out stereotypes about various groups of people.

-Keep in mind a few common fallacies. There are as many fallacies as there are people who can communicate them, so don't set out to try and memorize all of them (which I know you were dying to do). The first 9 fallacies listed in the above link are generally taught in Critical Thinking 100 classes, which I figure seems like a good jumping off point.

-Keep in mind who qualifies as oppressed or minority groups. If you're unsure, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, "would it be a big deal if a person in this group were to become President of the U.S.?" If the answer is "yes," you're talking about a group that has been historically thought of as less-than.

-Specifically for articles about women: when an article makes sweeping statements about women, and they don't sound sexist to you off the cuff, try this trick: replace the word "women" with a racial or ethnic minority, then see if the sentence sounds racist. (McMillan's article is written in the second person, but her use of the word "you" is the equivalent of the word "women.")

"The problem is not men, it's you." --->"The problem is not men, it's Mexicans."

Whoa! That sounds awful. If your newly created sentence makes you cringe--like the one above does (I hope)--- then the original statement is also not okay.

-Default to diversity. This is an annoying alliterative soundbite that I just made up, but I can't think of another way to phrase it. If nothing else, remember that there is a massive amount of variety among people in general, and that broad statements usually can't capture that.

That about wraps it up. If you have other suggestions, please let me know! I hope you've found this post educational/ mildly entertaining/ vaguely valuable in some way.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Queerness and the Male Gaze in Lady Gaga's Alejandro Video

Yes, folks, it's another Lady Gaga music video. Pointlessly cinematic, rife with meaningless imagery, and inexplicably, excruciatingly slow at the beginning, the video for Alejandro is instantly recognizable as bearing the silly-ass but infuriatingly entertaining mark of Lady Gaga.

When I first saw one of her videos, my beginners’ mistake was assuming that, like a feature film, the imagery in that seems like it must be a metaphor, was. In fact, in the case of Alejandro, it was more like Gaga and Steven Klein (the co-director ) watched a bunch of war movies, and then a bunch of Pedro Almodovar movies, and decided to combine them into a meaningless mashup of machine gun bras and swallowed Rosary beads.

But that's another post. I actually wanted to talk about what I find interesting about the video. First, the bad stuff:

I'd say the worst offense is the song itself. I’m not sure if we have a word like Orientalism that applies specifically to Latino cultures, but if we do (or if it’s acceptable to actually use the word Orientalism here, which I'm told it might be), it’s certainly applicable here. The song is pretty heavy with Mexico-romanticization, most apparent in the cringe-inducing lyric “you know that I love you, boy, hot like Mexico…” (emphasis mine) Eesh. Also questionable are the three Spanish words (“en su bolsillo,” “in her pocket”) thrown in for no discernible reason.

Speaking of things without discernible reasons, why does this song have its Latino theme at all? Apparently the song is about Gaga’s frustration at having unrequited romantic love for her gay male friends. But I find it hard to believe that these friends are ALL Latino men whose names end in “-o.” The “spicy Latino lover” theme feels pretty tacked on for the sake of…spicy Latino lover-ness.

Now the stuff I think is probably pretty good maybe:

Most interestingly, the video is fairly a) not androcentric and b) queer. I would venture to say that it does not use the near-ubiquitous male gaze , instead using a gaze that prioritizes the visual pleasure of straight women and gay men (or really just anyone who likes men sexually). There are far more men than women (of which there is only Gaga) in the video, and they are all highly sexualized, wearing skimpy outfits and thrusting their hips around like there was no gay tomorrow. Obviously, this is hugely different from other mainstream music videos, in which women tend to be much more sexualized than men.

Another interesting note, gaze-wise, is Lady Gaga and her goggle thingies. Gaga wears said thingies while apparently observing the group of men from a separate room-type thing. This decidedly voyeuristic act is an interesting reversal of the far more common man-observing-woman voyeurism in films (I am currently trying to find a nice list of films that feature this, to link here, so please let me know if you find one). In her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that the observer’s gaze controls the observed (paraphrased by me). In mainstream film, obviously, the man is far more often the “bearer of the look” than the woman is.

There are also other hints of queer-type stuff throughout the video. A male guard wears fishnet stockings and high heels. The male guards dance with each other in a sexual (if silly) way. Most interestingly, much of the simulated sex in the video does not conform to heterocentric definitions of sex: namely, when Gaga simulates anal sex with one of the guards, and he is on the bottom. That’s pretty drastically different from the ideas of sex that many mainstream music videos adhere to.

The video and the song itself certainly have their share of problems. However, I think it's a good thing that an ultra-famous pop star's music video, seen by zillions, does a fair job of venturing away from conventions like heterocentrism and the male gaze. Popular media plays an important role in what we see as "normal," so I'm glad to see a pop superstar subverting norms that are ingrained in our culture pretty hard.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Braces and Class

Recently, a friend posted on Facebook that she was thinking about getting braces, and was feeling unsure because of the fairly common belief that "adults with braces are creepy."

I think this attitude is classist and unfair. The assumption behind "adult braces are creepy" is "braces are for kids." This is classist because it means "your parents should have been able to afford expensive orthodontics for you." That's pretty harsh- a criticism not of you yourself, but of your family and class. When you were a child, no less. You could not have had less control over those factors.

It's also a double bind because adults with severely crooked teeth who DON'T get braces also become the subjects of ridicule. We even have stereotypes associated with very crooked teeth (think "backwoods hick," etc.). Adults with slightly-to-somewhat crooked teeth may not get mocked, but still don't meet our beauty standard. So really, you'd better get your teeth straightened as a kid-- something you likely have no control over-- or you're doomed to be considered ugly in one way or another.

When I see adults with braces, I think it's likely that their families couldn't afford them when they were kids, and now they're doing well enough that they can afford them themselves. That's a generalization, of course, it's just been true (and I do realize this is very anecdotal, but hear me out) of all the adults with braces I've known, and it'll be the case with me if I eventually get any orthodontic work. I think it's cool when adults have braces because it means that they're probably doing better for themselves than the previous generation of their family was. Something something American dream something something.