A diptych frequently circulated online:
This has nothing to so with sex or gender. It is about how things have changed over time. The image is not sexist, or misogynist, because it does not represent all women. It is just one example. It is comparing then and now, not men and women. And especially not grown-up, lionized, male historical figures with well known identities to young, anonymous, fictitious women. It is just one example. This image is not representative of women as a whole [sic], and you are sexist to say that it is. The image does not target any behavior that is specifically feminine [sic]. It is just an accurate example of what women do. It is just true that girls and women spend a lot of time in the bathroom and take a lot of selfies; ergo, they take a lot of selfies in the bathroom. That is just logic. Plus, it would be just the same if it was [sic] a picture of a guy taking a selfie. But guys just don’t do that. I know, because I use the men’s bathroom, and I never see them taking selfies in there.
Women are a conglomerate as members of the female sex. Your comments do not represent women as a whole [sic]. You can’t just give one example, like, what if we compared Betty Friedan with Justin Bieber? That’s not a counterexample, because it is not based in statistics. Using a handful of feminist women [sic] that fit your criterias [sic] is not indicatory [sic] of our society. You need to use statistics and prove your point. (And remember, the image of Armstrong and Selfie Girl is just one example; it does not make any point about gender. It’s just like if you said all black men are rapists.)
And don’t over-analyze. The image is not academic and has nothing to do with semiotics, “the gaze,” identity, anonymity, or “representation.” It has nothing to do with women in general, because it does not represent all women. Your [sic] just hiding behind big words, in some intellectual fantasy that has no connection with reality. By the way, your analysis is misguided, and you are miseducated too.
You are looking to be offended by everything you see. You’ve created enough straw men to distract all of the wicked witches [sic] monkeys. It isn’t my goal in life to memorize as many fairy tales as possible.
[I am not making this up.]
Diptychs circulated infrequently online:
This has nothing to so with sex or gender. It is about how things have changed over time. (Etc.)
Neil Armstrong et al. (1969)
Paul Ryan et al (n.d.)
Hugh Hefner et al (n.d.)
Robin Thicke et al. (2014)
Puerto Rican Day in Central Park (2000)
Shoshana Roberts Street Harassment (2014)
Sue Lyon in Kubrick, Lolita (1962, based on 1955 novel)
Pharrell Williams, “It Girl” (2014)
Montréal Massacre (1989)
Still from Elliot Rodger’s video “selfie” made before his Isla Vista Killings (2014)
In an unsurprising development yesterday, the combined faculty of all United States institutions of higher learning voted to terminate employment of any scholar who had previously uttered the word “b—h.” This sweeping reform applies to utterances in the classroom and outside; to loud statements and to soft, tentative ones alike; and to self-scolding. The intercourse at the First National Epithet Caucus was cool, calm, and collected, the discussion genteel, peppered with academically appropriate expressions such as “gentlemen” and “esteemed colleagues.” Tea was served, with an herbal option available. There were gluten-free muffins, and no one complained about the taste.
The meeting was inspired by an online discussion regarding the famous and little-known “Salaita Affair,” in the course of which a bravely anonymous faculty member advised, “Perhaps a better way to look at this is to rely on George Carlin’s old comedy skit about ‘seven dirty [sic] words.’ In short, don’t use them to maintain civility.” The subtlety of this recommendation was appreciated by all, and there was a unanimous vote to adopt the “Carlin Standard” as a measure of civility on campus, which promised to ensure that all language would remain harmonious for all.
Music faculty from across the country did not mobilize, become heated, or express concern about the proper procedure for citing Miles Davis’s “B——s Brew”: they’d always been puzzled by the title’s grammar anyway, and there are plenty of other Miles albums to work with. Women’s studies professors did not raise questions about assigning B—-s, B—-s and B———–s: The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.
No faculty member asked for special dispensation for a colleague who had called him or her a “b—h”: there was no report that they had later discussed the matter, learned from it, agreed that the term was counterproductive, and had gone on to teach a gender studies seminar together. Indeed, since any remedy and/or rapprochement would require both parties to utter the verbum non gratum, it seemed moot.
No professor who, upon being appointed chair of his or her department, had anointed himself or herself “Head B—h,” mentioned the possibility of reclamation or destabilizing meaning. There was no panel on socialization or Stockholm syndrome.
There was no concern about addressing the reality that coarse and crude language is ubiquitous in the culture at large or that expunging it completely could make it difficult to discuss important matters.
It was agreed that the 🙂 be included in all communications henceforth, which will allow Tweets, blogs, text messages, peer-reviewed articles, tenure statements,—as well as notices of disciplinary action—to remain free of any appearance of antagonism. All applauded demurely at the Smiley Initiative, which promises to ensure a “positive, welcoming, fair and open environment” for all members of the higher-education community. (A subcommittee has been appointed to develop a technology that will enable the Smiley Initiative to be used in face-to-face meetings.)
As the terminations were effected, there was no uproar. Petitions did not circulate. Neither boycotts nor strikes took place.
As classes began this week, students were not ill-served by finding that the vast majority of their courses were unstaffed due to the termination of the “b-worded.” It has been confirmed that there are seven professors in the nation whose records are clear and who retain their positions; they have agreed to increase enrollment in their courses in order to accommodate the students whose mentors are no longer available. It is not yet clear how this reshuffling will affect grading policies or the implementation of new measures aimed to curb sexual assaults, which are being proposed at many universities.
Students’ assigned work this week, in tweet and text-message format, frequently featured the new expression “WTF,” said to be an acronym for “Wow, that’s fabulous.” However, other interpretations have been proposed, among them “Whoa; très freaky,” and “Wonderful! They’re free.”
In response to IAmNotMakingUp’s tweet to all the nation’s faculty asking for comments, the response was a unanimous 🙂
—Guest Post by Rosie Router
I was cooking right along in Robert Fink’s “The Musicology of the Present,” or so I—at least I think it was I—thought. Arriving at the end of the epigraph, I got stuck on something he did not say:
. . . the musicologists are all off doing gender studies . . .
Off where? The gender studies section is off somewhere? Where? And they’re all there? Can you point me in the right direction?
(This was a while ago, and third-hand, so I realize it may be difficult.)
And then, there was something he did say but really didn’t:
. . . we became caught up in gender . . .
Gender is something that one can “[become] caught up in”? Does that not mean it is something one can refrain from getting caught up in? Or become not caught up in? I suppose one can avoid going off, then. Where they all are.
Speaking of where, I suspect that this subject, “we,” is decentered. But I’m not sure, since I got my Lacan from “Žižek”—understandably, because Lacan tells me I do not exist. I think it has something to do with “the subject [referring] to some decentered other to whom he or she imputes this belief.” This sometimes gets confusing, because the externalized statement is mistakenly read as an earnest statement of the speaker rather than an implicit attribution to an absent but existent “we.”
Are you with me?
I predict there will be replies attributing this statement to Robert Fink. Yup, there’s one.
But he did not advocate this statement; rather he inferred it,—or, better identified it—as something that seems to be here and there. It can be worthwhile to reach out and grab these notions that float unacknowledged in the aether.
On the other hand, this he did say they said:
Richard Taruskin, like the equally prolix J.K. Rowling, has been adamant that the long narrative arc of his series is over, and there will be no sequels.
Well if the history of Taruskin is ended, we can at least probe a couple of years earlier into the history of musicology in order to consider the eminent scholar’s critique of John Adams’s “crybaby role.” That is a statement this subject did pronounce. More than once.
(Has J.K. Rowling weighed in on this yet?)
Kyle Gann reports a discussion about “narrative history”:
. . . there won’t be any contemporary accounts of history for future gender studies scholars to work from.
From accounts, to where? I am still finding it hard to locate things. I gather we (whoever that is) record the data here (wherever that is) and now (this concept I think I understand), and later on (got it), the gender studies crew (the ones who are all off somewhere) comes in (here? or do they stay over there?) to do the gender part. (Will there be gender studies scholars in the future? And off where will they be? [For that matter, will there be scholars in the future?])
There is a good example of this division of labor—accounting and gendering—close at hand. Of Gann’s excellent book, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33”,” Branden W. Joseph writes,
Refreshingly, Gann casually and straightforwardly acknowledges Cage’s homosexuality, although he relegates any reading of 4’33” as an act of thwarted expression in a period of widespread homophobia—as argued by Caroline Jones, Jonathan Katz, and, most recently, Philip Gentry, among others—to a footnote.(4)
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Gender is not where Gann’s silence is, but it is where some other subjects are speaking, and Joseph can point the way.
Cage, the man, is unlikely to have been glimpsed in person by anyone now under thirty, and few now living were present at the premiere of 4’33”, so he hardly counts as a present-day figure, except in his reverberations, which are loud. This makes for an interesting compositional and musicological circumstance. (Yale University Press anoints 4’33” an “icon”—alongside Wall Street, Joe DiMaggio, and the hamburger. I think the word “icon” may have had a different constitution when they instituted their series.)
It is getting harder and harder to tell where “here” is and who “we” is,—I mean, are—and how, if “all” are “off” it could be considered “off” at all. While I await further clarification on the topography, though I suspect it will change again before it is explained, here (!) are a few tidbits from my (I think) reading list:
Robert Fink on minimalism and opera; Kyle Gann on John Cage; Yayoi Uno Everett on Louis Andriessen; Naomi Cumming, and Sumanth Gopinath, on Steve Reich; Lydia Goehr on American opera (and John Cage); Michael Wyatt on Messaien; Majel Connery on Peter Maxwell Davies (and Thomas Adès); Lisa Coons on Laurie Anderson (and Diamanda Galás, and Antony and the Johnsons). There is also Alice Miller Cotter’s current research on John Adams; Stefan Weisman’s dissertation on Yoko Ono; and more. Oh, I have a few little things too, but I would not want to appear self-aggrandizing by recommending them. Plus, there is the Internet. And regarding 4’33”, don’t miss Branden W. Joseph’s “White on White” in Critical Inquiry, though it is not, strictly speaking, musicology (which one could say some of the others also are not). I am not sure where to put it. But I am glad to have it.
Where is “the near blackout of attention to contemporary composing?” Is it here, or is it off somewhere? How do I find it? And when you throw a spitball, is it from here to there, or there to here? I really want to know, because I’d rather not find one stuck on the back of my head.
Has anyone written about Laura Kaminsky’s opera “As One,” yet? (Or Susan Narucki’s multiply authored Cuatro Corridos? Or my Weakness, for that matter?)
Where is the data? Where is the gender? I do understand it comes second; that’s good to know. Does the second shift pay time and a half? And what comes after?
—Barbara A. White
It’s nice to see you here in the æther, Brad, and to read your “We Are What We Think.” It’s been a while, and we do not really know one another, yet I’ve always thought you a fellow good egg, so I shall presume to speak freely, as one egg to another. When I read your comment, I begin to dream about what it might be like to think of gender issues as simple and as something that could be gone beyond. The thing is, I don’t have that luxury. Indeed, #SomeOfUs, at some times, might experience the inverse: as if every mince of meat in the pie is wrapped within a tight crust of gender socialization. All the veggies and spices are held in check; it’s hot and uncomfortable in there. I observe how frequently constructions like, “it’s not just gender” come up. (Again, socialization: I myself included a formulation not entirely unlike this in my earlier text.) If I had a dollar for every time I read, “it’s not just gender,” I’d have . . . $0.73 on the dollar.
(I’ve had this détournement on hand for some time.)
I think we also think what we are. Moreover, depending who holds what sort of power and how much, we are effectively what others think we are, whether or not we think so. One could run around like a chicken with her head cut off if she continued to be and think this way.
This is my vantage point: rather than nibbling on the gender aspect as the chicken in the soup, I drink it in as the stock. It’s always there, hydrating (or drowning) the rest of the ingredients, and it has caloric, if not always measurable, effects. I often refer to the “second shift”—a term that has been used to describe women’s domestic “homework,” completed after returning home from the workday. But the shifts are more than two: as “the gender” (a term a colleague applied to me once), I have a second shift in managing the chromosomal matters that come up from day to day. On the occasions when issues of equity threaten to affect my performance and/or well-being, my third shift—seeking remedy—commences. The price for all this is high. Often the dishes go unwashed. For days at a time.
I am intrigued by what you write in your 2007 essay, and I am sorry it was not embraced for more traditional publication. I especially appreciate the inward-lookingness, which is all too rare in the contexts and culture(s) you describe. Many of your stated concerns intersect with my own. Along these lines, I have been conceiving of a project to do with the intersection of ethics and the arts—perhaps less frighteningly described as values and the arts. My dream is to foster more attention to the implicit habits of mind that stock our soup and thus to the more explicit, if still unquantifiable, fruits and poisons of those habits. Perhaps there is more discussion to be had on this topic. Ironically, although gender is one of the main factors—if not the only one—that led me to reflect on values and ethics as related to artistic activity, the requirements presented by my many shifts preclude my moving forward on this endeavor at the moment. It’s too bad, because I think such a project would contribute much to the field and its culture, and I would like to make such a contribution. Maybe someday.
I remember that Paul told me about your blog when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I think we were experiencing life-threatening illness at the same time. Perhaps there is something to the notion that such an experience can clarify and distill one’s values and goals. Although that sounds cliché, for me one aspect of such reorienting may be that clichés cease to feel so clichéd; that values feel more urgent, more communal, less rarified. Of course, I do not know whether this was your experience, so I would be curious to know. For my part, I fired up the still and started on the moonshine some time before my diagnosis, so I was already under the influence of thoughts about impermanence before I met my tumors. As I get older and continue breathing, I debate whether I want to spend my remaining years stirring against the current, or whether it would be more useful to twirl over to the blender to make gazpacho instead.
You mention “the sense of protection and entitlement that leads to an unhealthy insularity.” #NotAll would choose to reflect, and openly, on this sort of privilege and its effects. I suspect we might have some similar thoughts about the current political, cultural, and academic climate. My eyes have been opened of late as I have learned more about the experiences of adjunct faculty across the country, as well as of tenure-track and tenured faculty who teach at institutions that permit less hermetic luxury. And there are the recent threats to academic freedom, which seem to be arising at regular intervals.
As a fellow presumed good egg, perhaps you will be interested to hear that such a sense of safety and ease is is largely foreign to my experience. My sense is of disenfranchisement and exposure to the elements—so much so that my saying even this much may well open me to professional risk. Even though I am a full professor with a distinguished record, I do not believe my tenure to be secure. I know that I do not have access to academic freedom. My environment is not insular; on the contrary, I travel largely on my own, outside the clubhouse. This is a shame and a shock, for such stability is one of the great perks of knocking oneself out as a junior professor (the others, of course, being able to work at home in pajamas, and having good health care if and when the overwork catches up—if that is, one thinks materialistically about such matters). And I fear not only for my job security, livelihood, and wardrobe, but for my overall well-being and my very survival. Stirring against the current takes a toll. Again, it is an unquantifiable one, but it can be deadly in various ways, both literally and metaphorically. I’m only joking about the pajamas, of course: it’s the vocation itself that draws me. And so I am sorry to find that, even after paying my proverbial dues—plus the gender tax levied on top—I am hindered from “contributing to the field,” as we say when we advocate for our mentees in all those letters of recommendation, thwarted in my efforts to share the wisdom I have gained along the way.
In the stream of your self-reflection, you write, “I could also hide behind the tired excuse: ‘I’ve already written/said/discussed this before, so why drag it out and bore everyone again?’ Been there. Done that.” That is another difference. I sweat in the heat but am denied the license to get out of the kitchen. I do not have the luxury of choosing not to be bored, or electing not to bore you. As with life-threatening illness, one cannot take a break from gender disparity and disrespect. Moreover, crafting a productive response to counterproductive circumstances is much harder than writing a dissertation or compiling a portfolio for promotion. (Hmm—perhaps we could give tax credit to junior professors for gender duty?) I’m damned if I cluck and damned if I don’t. Instead, in order to survive, I must continue to cough up eggs even as my limbs are being chopped off. How long before there are none left to sacrifice? It’s like The Giving Tree, which I cannot but call “The Tree of Codependence.” Or like the Monty Python’s disembodied knight. (He perseveres, armless, to scoff at his opponent: “Chicken!”)
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is worse than cancer. Much worse. I strode to my mastectomy, but I trudge to the concert hall.
In regard to the nature of the concert hall and thinking outside the box, I believe this matter too to be deserving of attention and inquiry. I agree, in 2014, about the restrictions you identified in 2007. But I have to play prep cook first and ask, whose box is it? And how do those who have yet to make our way in step outside of it? (By the way, hasn’t the fantasy of “thinking outside the box” become rather boxy itself since 2007? Funny how that happens. Times have changed. Do you agree? Should we at least ask the chicken’s name and make sure she’s got room to stretch?)
Do I remember correctly that when you came to the Princeton conference some years ago you performed solo, something kind of folky? I remember having a resistance to that, in a way that will not surprise you given what you write/wrote in your essay. And that’s a good experience to have. I would not have the same response today, I bet. What might it mean that “something folky” is what puts someone off in the concert hall in the ivy? (Or perhaps that was someone else. It’s been a while.)
Fast forward to 2014, last night’s gig: I was ticket-seller for the Thursday-night Ceilidh here in Cape Breton. There is a sign at the entrance to the Sessions Lounge that says, “Beer Belly Boulevard.” Local musicians, mostly amateur, and (“and,” not “but”) supremely skilled and devoted; their music is moving and inspiring. I got a $5 tip!—from a hulking, very drunk man who called me “sweetheart.” I tried to refuse the money, suggesting he reallocate his funds to the bartender who was working for minimum wage and tips, but he firmly pushed the bill into my hand. (Given his disinhibited state, I didn’t think it would be productive to undertake a discussion on his unwanted largesse.) A fleeting moment, but neither simple nor beyondable: a physically intimidating man refused to accept that I would not accept his money and assumed license to address me with a term of infringement. I toyed with the thought of disclosing to him my salary, whether the $0 per Ceilidh I get for taking tickets or the vast sum I receive for my multiple shifts at the university. (In an immaterial sense, I am no longer sure which is more lucrative.) Instead I took the colorful fiver and bought my duo partner a Bud. Then I joined in the weekly jam session and played some jigs and reels on my bass clarinet, swimming along with the circle of generous and welcoming local virtuosi. At ease.
And now, I must take my leave. There is a very nice man across the room who has just cooked me an omelette. (It’s actually French toast, but sometimes you gotta break an egg to make sour-grape lemonade, eh? If I can’t catch a break, I’ll take poetic license. With maple syrup.)
I am curious: how have your thoughts crystallized and/or shifted since your 2007 essay? Anything new? And to the larger—here I use such a word advisedly—issue: how is your health? Good, I hope, in all ways, small and big. (And let me know if you do not self-identify as a good egg; it’s not for me to say.)
—Posted by IAmNotMakingThisUp
“Our brains have evolved to help our bodies find their way around the world on the scale at which those bodies operate.”
—Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
To Richard Dawkins, DSc, FRS, FRSL:
Following up on your recent Twitter Conference on rape rankings, I wonder whether you might be willing to answer the following questions. Your reasoning ability is much needed. One of your conclusions follows:
Following up on this, and taking advantage of the copious space afforded off-Tweet, a few questions follow. I would like to get at some of the subtleties of your point of view—ones you could not have expressed in a mere 140 characters.
1. Which is bad and which is worse: to agree to go on a rape date without being informed that it is to be that sort of date, or to be held at knifepoint and raped by a stranger without being informed ahead of time?
1a. Which rape date is worse: one with someone you have met in a bar and never have to see again? Or one with an acquaintance you will see in evo-bio class on Tuesday? Or one you were introduced to by your best friend?
1b. Which is bad and which is worse: to be threatened by a dull carving knife, or a sharp serrated knife? Or to submit to the rape in order not to be cut? Or to be cut and raped both? And if so, by which knife?
1c. Which is bad and which is worse: to dress up, go on a rape date and have a nice dinner first, including fine wine? Or to dress casually, go on a rape date and get raped before dinner and drinks? Or, to go on a rape date and later be interrogated about what you drank? And wore?
1d. Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by a classmate and receive little or no assistance from campus authorities? Or to be raped by a stranger and receive little or no support from the legal system?
1e. Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by several young men in your school, and for them to put pictures and/or videos on the Internet, and, as a result, to take your own life at the age of 15? Or to be raped and take one’s own life right away?
1d. Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by your partner? Or by your mother’s partner? And does a pregnancy resulting from either experience change the ranking?
1e. Which is bad and which is worse: to be sexually assaulted (without penetration) by one’s father at 6, or to be raped (with penetration) by one’s uncle at 3? (Those are ages, not times of day.)
1f. Which is bad and which is worse: to be sexually abused by a distant family member and to keep quiet about it for decades? Or to be ostracized by the family when you at last choose to speak out?
1g. Which is bad and which is worse: to witness a man without understanding or compassion opine on grades of rape in 140 characters? Or for him to publish more than one 140-character statement? Or more? Or for these micro-statements to get so much news coverage that you cannot but see him everywhere?
1h. Which is bad and which is worse: that inhumane acts such as sexualized violence continue to be tolerated, or that a prominent male intellectual, whose speciality lies elsewhere, chooses to focus on degrees of suffering rather than degrees of misdoing? Or, just to leave the discussion to those who are equipped to undertake it? (To “go away,” one might say.) And, if he is taken seriously on the topic of rape, does that mean we should believe what Jenny McCarthy has to say about the link between vaccination and autism? And should we all be making appointments with homeopaths?
1g. Which is bad and which is worse: to opine on the significance and degree of others’ suffering without listening to what they have to say themselves? Or to deny others’ suffering altogether? Or to consider oneself irreproachable by virtue of one’s (ostensibly) superior intellect?
1h. You say that you can reverse the “X and Y”—that is the rape date and the aggravated assault—and retain the same logic. Might one contend then, that “acupuncture is bad, and that homeopathy is worse?” And that neither is commendable? And then reverse the X and the Y? Could one say that sudden death is bad but slow, agonizing death is worse, and then reverse that? Or that death by 1000 cuts is bad, but by 1001 is worse, or maybe the opposite? Could one say that one offensive tweet is bad and two are worse and reverse that too? That confronting inhumanity before death is bad and that finding it the afterlife too—hypothetically speaking, of course—would be worse? Or would the afterlife, even in the presence of others who scorn compassion and mutual understanding, have other advantages that make the big picture worth it?
Semantics, Virtuality, God, and Delusion
Richard, please tell us what, in this era of virtuality, “go away” means. If there is an “away,” must there be a “here”? Are we to assume that “here” is where you are? If so, most of us, statistically speaking, are likely “away” already. And to confuse matters, I have a hard time thinking of the sofa on which I sit as anything but “here,” though if I expend some effort, I can understand that to you it may be considered “away.” Where, then, am I to “go”?
Richard, do I understand correctly that your experience of sexual abuse was rendered innocuous because you did not believe in evil (and, presumably, God)? You mention that your schoolmates suffered (more) at the hands of the same offender while your “mental trauma was soon exorcised.” Does that mean that God, not the human being who did the “fondling,” sexually abused these children? And if God does not exist, who sexually abused these children? Who is responsible for their suffering? (Extra credit: can you explain your choice of the word “exorcised”?)
Describing your resilience, you write, “Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”
So, Richard, why are you speaking out about degrees of sexualized assault? And why are you comparing the effects of different sorts of rape if you yourself were so unaffected by your childhood experience? If your trauma was “exorcised,” why do you think rape is “bad” and can be even “worse”? Can’t those who have experienced rape access your form of “exorcism” too? Isn’t the real offender, not the sexual predator, but God? And since there is no God to hold accountable, does that mean that rape does not exist?
And how is it that your brain is helping your body find its way around the world? Does it help you find your way around Twitter? Maybe your brain could help me figure out where I should go to learn to think. I would like to think better. Although, like you, I hold a doctoral degree and a professorship,—albeit without such a public profile—I am not sure that my Ph.D. in Music Theory and Composition qualifies me to compare different degrees of rape. But you appear to know better than I do about applying one’s training in unexpected areas.
Richard, please critique the following statement: “As an eminent evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins has become known as a public intellectual. As an eminent evolutionary biologist and public intellectual, Richard Dawkins compares varieties of sexual assault in order to rank them. As an eminent evolutionary biologist and public intellectual who compares varieties of sexual assault in order to rank them, Richard Dawkins unwittingly exposes the limitations of logic.”
I like to think that your brain can help my brain help my body find its way around. I will appreciate any assistance you can offer.
Oh—one more question: Can you define “syllogism” for me? Is it something like “solipsism”?
Thank you for this article, Susanna; I appreciate your raising important and subtle points, including the fact that there are still firsts, that ‘blind and neutral’ are not the same, and so on. There are too many points to cover, but since you mention specifics and acknowledge not having the answers, here are few thoughts:
(1) We need to take into account that men and women are socialized in ways that are suboptimal or worse for women (and for men, depending on one’s values, ethics, and goals). The inclusion of women on boards and panels and such is necessary, but not sufficient. Presence does not equate with equality; there are many more factors to consider. (For what it is worth, I have been on plenty of panels that were attentive to gender. But the imbalance continues.)
(2) You ask about role models: I am one such role model, and one for whom Judith Weir has been and continues to be an exemplary role model herself (in her role as a composer, as you say—and I have written about her work in regard to gender and other matters too). But I am sad to say that the presence of mature, experienced women is not enough either. I have been attentive to mentoring female composers, and male ones too, including but not limited to advisees interested in gender-related matters. Most of my own mentors were male, and they were and continue to be exemplary citizens in terms of gender issues and everything else. I myself am puzzled sometimes to see that there are fewer women applicants for a certain opportunity, or fewer who are likely to be considered as likely contenders.
(3) I am curious (literally) about your mention that women “lose motivation to continue studying music and musical composition, and why are they then less likely to put themselves forward”: Is that an inference from the data? Can one be sure of what is happening behind the numbers there?
(4) The ways in which decisions are made and opportunities awarded (caveat: I am in the US) can be quite informal and subjective, and the distinction between professional expertise and personal bias, in a field such as composition, is not always easy to manage.
(5) Apart from the numbers, men continue to enjoy unwarranted privilege and license; for example, how many male composers are reading this article? For how many is this topic a concern? As above, it is, for #SomeMaleComposers. Yet it continues to be the case that men are accorded license far beyond that accorded to women, and that (again, in the US), personal hunch and identification may well affect decisions. The fact that there are likely to be comments on your article that put forth blanket assertions without having worked in this area or having done any investigation to support what they say is telling. (Cue the tubas . . . ) #SomeOfUs report our experience, read books about discrimination, have discussions like this, look at data, and strategize (and worry over whether clothing is too sexy or not sexy enough, whether self-presentation is too humble or too self-important, whether manner of interaction too accommodating or too “pushy”). In response, #SomeOthers say, “Well, no, it’s really like this,” presuming to define others’ experience without having done the legwork to support their assertions. In such instances, the opinions of those how know less too often are accorded disproportionate authority. If one is not required to deal with gender on a daily basis, why would one? (The fact that some do is all the more heartening.) And if not, why consider oneself an authority on the topic? Moreover, most articles on the underrepresentation of women focus on what needs to change on the XX side of the chromosomal balance: there should be more women, why are the numbers low, what can women do. (Hence my question above about the data.) But there is much less energy being directed toward men and the changes they need to make. The frequency with which a proposal is described as “letting” women in is revealing.
(6) I am sorry to say that, as a composer with three decades’ experience now, having enjoyed opportunity, support, artistic accomplishment, and recognition, I find the persistence of gender inequity in some pockets of the composition world egregious. Another matter that that is almost never discussed is the way that women may be confronted with more, not less, discrimination as we gain wisdom and expertise, as we become elders; that has been my experience, from some quarters, I am sorry to say. I hope that my mentees and other younger composers do not encounter such resistance to their mastery. For now, being experienced and established offers no guarantee that one will be respected in the way that each one of us deserves. There is still pressure on women to deny any imbalance; we receive much positive reinforcement if we say we have not encountered challenges, that we think of ourselves “as composers first” or that we believe ourselves to have been treated fairly (great, but how could we know?). Women who acknowledge forces that work against them meet with reprisals of various sorts. (Notice the #ManyQualifiers in my discussion here; they are accurate, yet my commentary is still likely to be read as dualistic.)
(7) As some have written about in mainstream discussions of otter gender issues, again and again we are the ones who are required to adapt to circumstance. While informal, ad hoc efforts may not be effective, it is also not realistic to think that systemic/bureaucratic changes are feasible. (The amount of training that would be needed . . . ) I do not see this changing unless individuals and groups really take responsibility—a familiar term—and, more fully, unless enough of us really desire gender equity and fruitful exchange—and all the yummy fruit when the harvest comes. In order to foster a better climate for women, we need to recognize that such an endeavor is in the best interest of all, to value a community in which one individual’s success is no longer seen as another’s loss, to pay as much attention to how we do what we do as how much of it we do. I myself have been considering leaving the profession, or changing my relationship to it—in my late 40s, knowing it is my calling and that I am at the top of my creative abilities (thus far), with many more pieces in me, and devoted as ever to the next generation—specifically because the values I see espoused in so corners of the composition world have revealed themselves as abhorrent and destructive. It’s not only about gender, but it plays itself out in dishonorably gendered manner, and someone in my position must ask whether such an environment will permit one’s gifts and offerings to be of use. The fact that in saying this, I place myself, not others, at professional risk, says much. The fact that I, having been fortunate in so many ways, am still asking the question of whether it is worth persevering says more.
It is disheartening to observe how “the woman composer question” keeps flipping back to page one, without much recognition of previous chapters. I observed this in what you correctly term “the rather unedifying recent debate about women conductors.” It is encouraging that your article, despite its brevity, takes into account historical context. More frequently, though, the public discussion on this topic seems to rewind again and again to pose the first question that would open the first meeting of the first seminar in the first semester of a life’s work on being a human being and a composer. (And even, the response to that opening question may be interrupted when the kindergartners barge in and exclaim, “It’s time for recess! Where’s my cookie?”) It’s unfortunate that there is not more continuity and depth in such discussions, though it is understandable. Perhaps that is something you, in your position, could cultivate.
Is it possible to dream a world of composition and music where we place mutual respect and the greater good at the top of our priorities, where we all remember what we don’t know and remain open to one another’s experience? I would like to think so, but I have yet to see a quorum on that.
Ok, that is more than a few thoughts. Thank you again for your thoughtful and good-willed attention to the topic.
—Barbara A. White
Warning: the following includes graphic descriptions of vagina cakes and ovary bobbing. (Well, not all that graphic. There is the word “blood,” but there is no actual blood.) And there are five thousand eloquent and grammatically correct words. (Plus a few hundred. And some superfluous ™s.) Proceed at your own risk. Or don’t.
The other day, I was intrigued to see a headline that included the words “vagina cake”. Who could refrain from seeing where a vagina cake crumb might lead? (I mean, a “vagina cake.” [Hmm . . . is there such a thing as a vaginal cake? But I digress . . . ])
Adam Mordecai’s Upworthy feed sent me to Eddie Geller’s, which presented this headline: “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Buying Your Kid A Vagina Cake When They Lie.”
Geller’s introduction to the video that follows lauds the company HelloFlo™ for its (her?) innovative marketing of feminine hygiene products: “But what they’ve done that’s even more genius is make a couple brilliant ads that normalize getting a period (you know, cause it’s normal). This is ad number two, and dare I say, it’s even funnier than the first one. So, let’s all watch the video and talk about how cool we are with periods, shall we?”
What could be more inviting? Yes, the mysterious moon cycle is normal! That’s what I and my fellow fifty-one per centers have been saying for, well, three and a half decades. And there’s a vagina cake! Bought by a good mother! Whose child (“they”) lied! And Eddie has prepared us that the ad is brilliant and funny and normalizing. I was more than a little excited to watch this video that promised to defang the term “first period,” even and especially as I prepare for my final one, which will arrive one of these days, months, or years, at least as unpredictably as the first one did.
Adam’s and Eddie’s links pointed to a video (2’20” in duration), portraying an adolescent girl who is impatient for the arrival of her first period. As the video begins, we see her decorating a feminine-hygiene product (ok, I’ll say it: a pad) with red nail polish, accompanied by a voice-over in which she lists the girls who have already flown to the moon. She mentions Jenny, and “stupid Vicky.” After she breaks the fourth wall for a while and fills us in on her predicament, her mother enters with the pad, and . . . hi jinx ensue! I’ll come back to cover the entry of the vagina cake in a bit, but for now, I’ll say that I did not observe all that much normalization, nor was I inspired to celebrate how cool we all are with periods. On the contrary, I was puzzled and dispirited.
I broke the cardinal rule of Facebook™ and sinned: I looked at the comments. (Ten Hail Marys to follow.) They were about evenly split between commenters who found the video sidesplittingly hilarious—it mentions a “vagician”!—and those who, more like me, were puzzled or even disquieted.
Danger: Discussion of online discussion follows. Proceed at your own risk.Lately, I have been observing the different shapes Internet “discussions” take: on an independent (non-Facebook™) site regarding Celtic traditional music, for example, exchanges about the proper time signature of a reel may become heated, but this is tempered by the fact that, ultimately, the participants have a shared interest, and most want to learn something, not just berate those with whom they disagree. In the face of a comparison between music and cuisine, one might even end up with the delightfully Dada question, “What is the proper time signature for a curry?” (The fact that we have wildly different backgrounds and know little about one another makes it even more lively.) On the other end of the spectrum, usually on Facebook™ posts that are less specialized, I see hostile and uncurious jousting over who can say “idiot” and “asshole” the most times. (Online, these words are not usually used to refer to oneself.) I’m probably not saying anything you don’t already know, and you may well reply, with good reason, “Just don’t look at the comments! [Idiot!]” But since I was a late bloomer, Internet-wise; since I am something of a hermit; and since my vocational practice concerns the intricate and varying relationships between everyday experience and art, I grant myself special dispensation to graze through the comments from time to time and to join in the frolicking on occasion. And I am not defensive about it, really; I just imagine you’ll be interested in my process and status. (Full confession: I also experience depression and grief at the pointed and persistent marginalization of women. We are, paradoxically, marginalized everywhere, almost. And a “where’s the woman?” state of mind can inspire me to seek out discussions of gender issues, which take on interesting forms online and can inspire an intensification or lightening of my despair, depending. It’s a cycle.)
Now, to sample the vagina cake stirred up by the parental revenge fantasy.
Danger: Facebook™ comments follow. Proceed at your own risk.
One reader asked something like this:
“Am I the only one who is creeped out by this?”
No, she was not:
1) Public humiliation. Retaliation. Passive aggression. Trickery. Deceit (as punishment for lying, hmmm . . . ). Otherwise known as #ChildAbuse. Which is #NotFunny. Certainly not as a supposed way to, um, decrease shame about puberty? AND—(2) Upworthy, it is an advertisement for a company that sells products.
To my considerable surprise and dismay, an argument of sorts ensued—on the Internet! About a gendered topic! And including language. I did not start it—really. Those who critiqued (or even discussed) the video were advised repeatedly that it “was not real.” Some implied that a reservation about the quality of the video could be held only by a viewer who lacked the capacity to distinguish between representation and endorsement, or between fiction and reality. Some proposed that the cramping of enthusiasm in the face of such a portrayal of vindictiveness could only arise from a misguided inference that the advertisement had been designed to initiate parents into the practice and protocols of offscreen child abuse rather than to sell tampons. To be clear, I’ve no use for an “us” or a “them,” or even a “you,”—not to be confused with you—but there was a noticeably consistent pattern: amused spectators asserted that anyone who remained undiverted necessarily lacked understanding of the brilliant comic authorial voice—not in those exact words—and even lacked a sense of humor altogether. Where have we heard this before?
I was glad to see Mordecai dive in:
Just FYI folks, I am not seriously advocating publicly shaming your children at every turn. It’s merely a funny ad to get people to understand that talking about menstruation shouldn’t be a thing to hide in shame about. This ad is a humorous attempt at calling that to attention.
This statement makes perfect sense to me. I would love to see a cultural product (and a commercial product to boot) that exemplifies Adam’s statement. This HelloFlo™ advertisement, however, is not that cultural product. Indeed, Mordecai’s original, earlier “share” was prefaced by this:
This goes along with my theory of parenting strategy [sic] that when my teen children inevitably try to throw a party at my house without telling me, the punishment will be me showing up at their school in a too tight [sic] superman [sic] costume to bring them lunch and call them by horrible pet names. It will be glorious until they figure out how to one up [sic] me.
Yes, individuals in intimate and long-standing relationships engage in role-playing and mischief. We also lose our cool from time to time and offend or even hurt one another. All of this can be delightful, enlightening, frightening, enraging, and dangerous. Sometimes play and harm get mixed up. And mixed up. The question is not whether fantasy is playful, but what sort of play is it?
You will be shocked—just shocked!—to hear that the conversation then went round and round in circles.
Danger: unfashionably long and slightly retouched Facebook™ comment follows.
Proceed at your own risk.
Ok, let me get this straight. Menstruation is something we as a culture, and as individuals (particularly those experiencing it) remain embarrassed about discussing openly. HelloFlo™ wants to ease that. The narrative of their commercial accomplishes such opening up in this way:
- A girl feels bad that she has yet to have her first period;
- she creates counterfeit “evidence,” using a cosmetic product, and leaves it for her mother to see (not exclaiming, “yay!”—and not telling her mother—why?).
- Her mother reveals knowledge of the fakery to the spectator, but not to her onscreen daughter (why?),
- then proceeds to execute an extravagant, outlandish revenge plot, which involves
- publicly humiliating the daughter with a “celebration” of her rite of passage (which has yet to happen) with older men as well as girls and other people present. These include her grandfather and the mother’s male coworkers (one of whom presents the still-premenstrual girl with kitchen supplies, culminating in the girl’s father jumping out of the long-awaited “vagina cake”);
- all of which serve, in the video, to mock the notion of a straightforward and earnest celebration of such a rite of passage;
- until the mother at last bestows upon her daughter a gift of the product for which this is all an advertisement.
- She reveals to the girl that she has already punished her for her deceit, rather than by conventional means, with this “first moon party.”
- To conclude, a man tells another girl about the same age, “Sometimes you just gotta wait.” Cut to—as they say, “wait for it!”—
- the HelloFlo™ logo and pitch.
One does not have to mistake this for documentary footage (sometimes confused with “real life”) or overlook the efforts at humor (some parts work, some don’t, and the video will read differently for different viewers) in order to critique the end product. Discussion and inquiry need not issue from a lack of understanding or an underdeveloped sense of humor. HelloFlo™’s advertisement, while ostensibly pro-woman, pro-girl, and body-celebratory, trades on tired tropes of conniving girls and underhanded women; emphasizes the importance of masculine gaze and response (comic coffee?); and mires its ostensible shame-cleansing agenda by portraying more shame. At the very least, it is confusing to use the master’s mockery to build the mistress’s moon. If this is such a new and pro-girl agenda, why muddle it?
Clearly this advertisement for a product trades on internalized misogyny. It is stained by unintentional unfunniness. The video targets the customer, the mother, with a revenge fantasy that falls flat. I certainly don’t see it puncturing embarrassment and shame about growing up. With respect, Adam, your original comment did have to do with parental revenge—yes, it’s clear you did not mean that seriously either—but that is the impulse this advertisement for a product is manipulating. This is efficient for the advertiser (and one could say cheap and exploitative too). Isn’t it worth noting that this groundbreaking new advertisement for a product hooks the viewer through displays of revenge rather than affection and caring? Does humor have to be cruel? (For some, yes.) If that entertains and interests you, great, but I would rather not confuse that with a genuine, new, open, and healthy vision of girls’ experience. In re “lightening up” [mentioned by other commenters], one cannot have it both ways—saying this advertisement for a product is doing the cultural work of positively affecting our attitudes without considering the possibility of a negative effect. Hello, Flo: How about going right from the girl’s impatience, to her mother’s compassionate witnessing (mostly absent from the clip, except as related to her consumer status), perhaps by way of a sorbet of generational strain (one of the better ingredients in the video as it is), to the starter kit, to the ketchup guy? (I’ll let you keep it a guy if you agree to the rest of my revisions.) Nah, there’d be no “story.” So why this story? Or how ’bout an advertisement for a product that just had women and girls celebrating their bodies? That would be dotty, right? Why?
(One commenter instructed five or ten of the others to “get therapy”; she also informed the poster above that she hoped she would find her sense of humor someday. I was grateful for her concern and well wishes, and my friends and I found this riotously funny, since, well, I often have to restrain myself from disrupting any conversation with my unbearably witty banter. [I fancy myself a modern-day Dorothy Parker without the obscenities. Or the hats. Or the civil rights activism. And carrying a little less heartache, but only a little less.])
Danger: unbearably funny and not-quite-supercilious Facebook™ comment follows.
Proceed at your own risk.
I was entranced by the way that the ethos of the advertisement refracted through the discussion about it:
This is such a lively and illuminating discussion; I’m learning so much. For example, I notice that, for the most part (especially until the recent comments about therapy), those who question the perfection of the video comment on the video, and those who disagree comment on the people who have commented on the video; in other words, the words “you,” or “you people” (even more idealistic, given the anonymity of the Internet) are circulating with abandon. Some favorite phrases of those advocating this “humor” are the following:
“Calm the hell down. . . .”
“People really do need to lighten up.” (Several votes for this one.)
“These must be the same people who . . .”
“See a shrink. . . . ”
“Get a sense of humor, people.”
“For those of you who find this offensive – get over it or un-follow the page.”
“You need a therapist and a big drink if you think this is child abuse.”
(What a high degree of sobriety is required to promote levity! I have been unable to find out whether that last recommendation was for a simultaneous therapist and big drink or perhaps a big drink with the therapist, which might be illegal, as well as funny. Nor was I able to ascertain what size the therapist should be. But I digress . . . back to our show.)
And there is even real recognition of one poster’s “socialist, lesbian loving attitude!!” (An insult from stranger to stranger? How humorous!) Indeed, such syntactical formulations show the advanced jocular status of those who project such utterances—what funny language! What a thought-provoking trend: those who either find the video hysterically funny (hysterical: get it?! LOL!)—or who simply want to argue—tend to use the second-person imperative, presuming to correct the opinions and attitudes of others, whereas “you people” themselves—again, generally speaking—use the third person to consider the video rather than promulgating ad-hominem [sic] vitriol—and at least, not retaliating with “you ‘you people’ people.” (“YYPP”?) This is very funny! I can’t imagine why there would be such a correlation. For example, those who have endeavored to express unease haven’t thought to say (or have, but have refrained from saying), “Well, ‘you people’ need to insert a little bit of analytical perspicacity into that so-called humor of yours!—and the reason I find it unfunny is because I do have a sense of humor, a sophisticated one, which you cannot but aspire to. This humor of yours is of poor quality, so there!” Well, that is something I for one would not say, except in this form of reflexive narrative transgression—and, above all, a humorous one. Of that I am . . . sanguine. (LOL!)
(With the important caveat that such could happen under duress, I would not dream of calling someone stupid, telling them to see a therapist, or insulting them personally; the sort of double-faux retort above is my limit; and it’s all play.) I find abusive language, with or without frosting, utterly and invariably demoralizing. Yes, I know there are sitcoms that portray characters plotting and scheming and insulting one another, and I know well that such a display can serve as a sort of outlet. But I do not find such discourse funny (save for affording a certain small license to Big Bang Theory, about which I remain ambivalent). Laughter does not confer comedic immunity. In more intellectual and academic circles, I often argue against the notion that an artwork delvers a univocal message and for less literal hermeneutic maneuvers. But that does not mean that all cultural products are equally sophisticated and equally open to complex and multivalent readings. It’s cheap and lazy to use humor to conceal, rather than to reveal, hostility—and it is unsurprising that a commercial, even one touted as progressive, takes the low road. I’d rather not shame the shamers. (LOL shamers?) Claims of “shaming!” comprise another Internet tendency that has become more than a little wearying. But it is interesting to observe this correlation: viewers who found the video funny and/or defended its portrayal of humiliation routinely used abusive language and personal attack. Celebration of the video was insufficient; denigration of those with differing points of view was crucial and central.
To put it bluntly, individuals comfortable with the humor of humiliation also embraced disrespectful discourse. And they weren’t even funny!
Ready-made verbal formulae designed to defend abusive behavior are widely available, and they all showed up, one after another, in the accolades for this video. This gives occasion to consider what might be tucked inside of, or excused by, comedified dysfunction.
It’s not funny to see a fictional girl fictionally tricked over a real-life rite of passage that engenders real-life vulnerability, especially under the guise of breaking down a tired taboo. This is not subversion of the status quo; it is submission to it. The story about the story is disingenuous.
The topic of first menstruation raises many significant issues: emotional responses such as shame and embarrassment are important, and I am glad HelloFlo™ and others are trying, if indeed they are, to release that. Some girls grow up in households where discussion is frank, and others (as did I) have to figure it out on their own or with the help of schoolteachers and friends.
This is not a trivial matter. Freer-flowing discussion could foster better personal, and medical, experiences for women. I contracted toxic shock syndrome during my freshman year in college. (This was before it was well known that TSS was not by definition fatal.) As a result, I learned some things about my reproductive system which would have been good to have known earlier on. Around the same time, a male friend wrote a paper for a class investigating what he termed the late and insufficient response of the medical community and the feminine-hygiene product industry to the advent of toxic shock. (In response, an older female relative said, “He’s weird.”)
I shuddered ten or more years ago when I read that there had been more research on the effects of bleaching dinner napkins (the paper kind) than on the whitening of tampons. During my years of cyclicity, there have been interesting developments in products, including unbleached tampons. Now there’s the DivaCup™ and Softcup™.
Such products reveal some of the innumerable ways in which women’s experience, even as it is acknowledged and supported, is simultaneously commodified, packed and sold back to us. This observation is no news flash (though some participants in the Upworthy discussion said they found the HelloFlo™ products expensive). And it’s interesting to think of a girl being sent a monthly package tailored to her flow, in “discreet” (the same word as in 1978) packaging. I’m not sure what to make of that; nor am I sure why a Beads For Life Sanyu Bangle Bracelet or other mentionables are included; but there must be a reason.
Women, Get Your Period™ Here!
My ultimate response to the HelloFlo™ video is colored by its pairing of commodification and womanhood. (What a quaint word. I use it advisedly.) First, the swag: there are ready-made kits, even including paradoxically advertised “surprises.” (Here, buy this surprise! Only $29.99!) I remember my own starter kit; I waited eagerly for it to arrive in its “discreet” packaging. I’m not sure I understand why a monthly delivery of semi-customized supplies appeals, but perhaps it’s handy to be relieved of the burdens of making selections and carrying light packages of absorbent fluff around. And the “complimentary” (one might consider respelling that) items: this sounds festive, but not a little impersonal: “Will Flo send the organic hard candy in the pink container or—the other pink thing?” Indeed, the tagline on Period Starter Kit, “every girl should have one,” says a lot. One—size fits all. And this comes at a time when, entering adolescence, young people are engaged in individuation. WOuldn’t it be neat to create one’s own totem, ornament, or treat?
(Is it possible that these “gifts” are akin the the “complementary copy” I remember Gloria Steinem writing about in Ms. many years ago? It was a protocol whereby, in order to garner a contract with an advertiser, the magazine would be required to run copy that related to the given product and supported the advertising even outside the advertisement proper. Of course nowadays, the possibility of a boundary between content and come-on is seldom even acknowledged.)
As de Beauvoir said: second, womanhood. Let’s glance at cultural (and, thus, political) constructions of and battles over gender. In “our” culture at large, which includes movies, television, video games, comic books, enlivening and enervating Facebook™ discussions, and things I have yet to hear have been invented, there is a character one almost never encounters: the crone. The womanly Trinity begins with maid, progresses to mother, and then—some grandmotherly presences notwithstanding—where does she go?
In too many settings, women are devalued and diminished even as we grow in wisdom and maturity. However, I am fortunate to have a number of allies in my life whom I call “wisewomen.” You know who you are; in fact, you taught me that expression. I am grateful that these maternal figures (whether or not they are literally parents) are willing to initiate me into their wisdom so that I can be a wise elder, I hope, if and when the time comes. (And, crucially, there are also some male role models who can spin with the cycle. You too know who you are.) But experienced, mature women remain woefully under-appreciated in both mainstream culture and more specialized realms. I recently heard a sixty-something man introduce an extraordinarily distinguished and renowned sixty-something woman at a public, academic/professional event, and he coyly, or passive-aggressively, suggested that she might (should?) be ashamed of her age. (Obviously, she would not be the distinguished artist she is, invited to that very stage to be honored in such a way, were she twenty-something.) Perhaps not coincidentally, she was exponentially more accomplished than he. I notice, in my own profession—which one would expect to have little in common with that of Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, and Angelina Jolie—that wisdom is not always an asset. Students seek seasoned teachers, but, among our peers, women practitioners “of a certain age” are often unwelcome. Still. In 2014. Despite all we offer to others, we are left aside and even rebuffed. Now a parody of that could be funny. . . . There are many reasons one might avoid revealing this, not least among them that, as I am doing right this moment, one risks exacerbation of difficulties by acknowledging that they exist, and more. Our marginalization, silencing, and invisibility are, as menstruation used to be, a topic we discuss amongst ourselves, if at all, when we fly off to mull over our matriarchal mysteries.
What of the mature feminine presence in the HelloFlo™ commercial? Some find the mother’s vengeful acrobatics funny; others gasp or yawn at the prospect of a grown woman duping and humiliating her daughter. The posts by the two Upworthies—both men, which is nice—suggest that the advertisement eases shame and embarrassment, but it relies on shame and embarrassment. Perhaps it eases their shame and embarrassment? That’s nice too, but perhaps a secondary priority. Sorry, guys: matriarchy rules. And because this is a commercial, there is a customer in mind: the mother. Clearly, the way to hook the fish is with a (supposedly funny, certainly fictional, possibly intertextual) revenge tale. The mother’s life experience becomes subservient to her use-value to the company as a consumer; her character submits to a vulgar narrative wherein grown men do imbecilic things and inspire raised eyebrows, while the girl, the supposed protagonist, does something adolescent—after all, she is an adolescent—and gets punished. Her up-growing is exposed in front of the men brandishing coffee filters, red vagina-imitating bodysuits, and slow-moving ketchup. (“Idiots!”) There is even a boy band up on a balcony that has been festooned with girls’ underwear. Now that is decidedly creepy. (The grandfather in his undershirt “bobbing for ovaries like a champ” could have benefited from some video surgery as well.) While in the past, a girl might have shuddered at the advent of menstruation, here the girl cringes at others’ appropriation of it, before she has even experiences it for herself. It is a possession, but not hers, and she does not like what is happening. No one else is cringing. (“Assholes!”) How funny.
I am fascinated by the ways in which periodical (that’s a clever peer’s coinage, so clever that she cannily critiques the word “clever” [#IAmNotMakingThisUp]) advertisements have changed over time. I remember gazing at some utterly weird booklets that my older sisters must have received at school in the seventies; the text and images completely mystified the entire topic. “Modess . . . because.”
(Okay, because why? [Like, I always want to ask, “‘Have a good one?’ A good what? And only one?”] And why is the ellipsis placed before the word because, when the statement is left unfinished? Okay, okay, I’ll do my best to go with the flow.)
Mid- to late-twentieth century advertisements show women in flowing gowns. And “Modess”: is that like, a female mod? Like “seamstress” or “poetess?” Almost passé enough to have a comeback. Perhaps today the advertisement would read, “Modster™ . . . whatever.” Anyway, by the time I reached adolescence, advertisements presented images of sporty young women in tight white clothing playing sports. (I wondered if I was supposed to wear white one week per month.) And now we have HelloFlo™, who proffers“special delivery for your hoo-ha” and urges, “whatever you call it, we can help you take care of it.” Indeed, engaging and refreshing. Amusing and arch. I say this in earnest. That’s great to see, and much more appealing than “. . . because.”
But this attitude does not stick. The climax of the humiliating vagina-cake advertisement comes when, unable to endure her mother’s torment a moment longer, the girl exclaims, in frustration, “I faked it!” This moment is poignant and sad in the way many funny things turn out to be, and it has more resonance than I would like. (I would love never to remember the image of Meg Ryan in the diner in When Harry Met Sally again.)
Such an utterance from such a young girl reminds me of the innumerable ways women choose to, or are pressured to, hide ourselves in order to play to the crowd. It reminds me how we learn to please, to appease, and from whom, and what happens when we stop faking it.
The two-minute and twenty-second advertisement does not, on its own, effect this; it “merely” reinforces it. (Even the specific choice of words, “I faked it,” brings too-heavy baggage to the first moon party.)
The folks on Facebook™ would surely “advice” [sic] “you people” [sic] to undertake some “lightning” (OK, that I did make up, but only sort of) and would likely proceed to remind the killjoys that “this is not real!!!!” They’re right: advertisements are not “real,” but then again, nether—Bless you, Autocorrect™!—are our daily lives, filled as they are with things like . . . advertisements. And Facebook™ posts. And arguments based more on assertion than thought. And women who undertake plastic surgery to look like Barbie™. And viral videos of real-life rapes. And sober questions about the relationships between and among religion, commerce, law, and women’s (as well as others’!) health. I would not propose that HelloFlo™ and Co. intended to create a piece of propaganda through reactionary faux-normalizing-but-compliant cultural work designed to serve the misogynist hegemony. As another wise-woman apprentice my age says, “It is not a conspiracy. It doesn’t have to be.” In other words, business as usual—uncontested, contested inadequately, or dressed up as new wine—lubricates the gears so that the gender-performance machine may continue to revolve under the moon. As my father used to say, “Garbage in; garbage out.” We can convince ourselves we have improved things, as long as we have something to chuckle at. As long as our belly laughs as we are distracted us from any irregularities or muscle spasms.
Living in this culture and knowing something about women’s and girls’ experiences, I am not amused to think that “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Humiliating Your Child When They Lie.” Now, inserting “Buying Your Kid A Vagina Cake” in the place of “humiliating your child” sweetens it up, but if this is funny, consider how bitter our humor must be.
There are other thought-provoking nuances, likely reflexes, in the language of the posts and the video. Notice that construction above: “when they lie.” “They” has long been accepted in place of a gender-specific pronoun, both in mainstream culture and by academics, but that is not my point. Why use “they” here? Worthy and urgent contestations of the gender binary aside, in this context, “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Buying Your Daughter A Vagina Cake When She Lies.” That has a less “embarrassment-alleviating” sound, doesn’t it? (I’d like to put “something” before “means,” but no matter.)
Toward the end of the video, after the girl has been subjected to the over-the-top-of-the-first-moon “party” (whose party?), she is rewarded with the gift of a HelloFlo™ kit from her mother. Mother and daughter sit together, and the girl asks whether she’ll be grounded for lying. Her mother reveals that the party was her punishment and adds, commenting on her long-held knowledge of the purloined period, “Periods don’t have glitter on them.” This too is interesting language. The girl did not create a false period, but rather evidence of one. That evidence is known as blood. Menstrual blood does not contain glitter. A period is not an object—except when it becomes a product to sell and buy. I can imagine that marketing experts might discourage the use of the term “menstrual blood” to sell a product. But the slippage of terminology is curious. Similarly, the word “vagina,” which hardly dances on the tongue, seems to have become a substitute for the female genitals. (Rick Perry even asked, “Which one?”) We teach ourselves to obfuscate even as we profess a desire to communicate.
(How could you place anything on a period anyway?)
And why is it that, after this exchange, the last scene of the video shows a middle-aged man advising a young woman, as he suffers the clichéd or archetypal “anticipation™” of flow from the sluggish ketchup bottle, “Sometimes you just gotta wait”?
(I know it would be too much to ask HelloFlo™ to go Godot. But a Girl™ can dream.)
(Perhaps we can all meet up at Maleficent instead.)
Warning: Wise Women Ahead (With Some More Wise Folks Right Beside)
It is sad that it is so hard to imagine a narrative in which a mature woman, perhaps a parent, has wisdom to impart and does so in a caring and dignified manner. This could be heartwarming. It could also be funny! Trust me: wise woman are a scream!
Why the need to mock a first moon party, with “grandpa bobbing for ovaries,” in order to promote a starter kit for camp, with its helpful Good for You Girls™ lip balm? Why not a first moon party? Maybe restricted to women; maybe not. (One of the commenters online described something that sounded like that; I bet my wise women might know about such rituals too. Do you? Do you laugh at the very idea? If so, why?)
Is it coincidental that the process of female maturation, at both ends of the child-bearing years, veers wildly between the poles of invisibility and farce?
The “vagician” is by no means a new invention (nor does she have to be to be in order to be worthy). There is Carolee Schneemann’s breakthrough performance Interior Scroll, from 1975, and impish Laurie Anderson’s “Beautiful Red Dress” from fifteen years later. There are women here and there who use menstrual blood in art-making, when it is available. In a different vein, I just read an enchanting scene in Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest Regency/fantasy novel, Valour and Vanity, wherein the protagonist, in short hair and trousers, discusses her cycle with her husband. It’s touching and light-handed, and it is a matter of urgent importance within the narrative. (You can’t miss it: It’s right before Lord Byron wins a swimming contest and rips his clothes off in the canal. That embarrasses Jane more than her period.)
And let’s not forget the truly revolutionary Annie Sprinkle, who has genuinely opened things up. (Including her cervix. She deserves her own paragraph.)
More generally, apart from artistic products inspired by the menstrual cycle,—”inspired by the menstrual cycle”; that too sounds oddly unfamiliar—there are myriad opportunities to observe a rite of passage in a meaningful ritual. Such an enterprise need not be packaged in a commodified stunt. (Dear Facebook™ acquaintances: the stunt, in this case, is the advertisement, not the actions narrative. Then again, I am an idiot.) It’s easy to poke fun at earnestness. Too easy. Doing so can be a handy cover for one’s own cowardice, and one’s own shame. If one cannot risk sincerity when the next generation’s maturing bodies are at center stage, when can one? Returning to the proposition above that the eager consumption of narratives portraying humiliation may correlate to the utterance of speech acts that do the same: might it be possible to invert this?
Perhaps paying attention to the details of such a cultural product—ignoring pressures to lighten up or move on or get a (different?) sense of humor—may have something in common with, may reflect or foster, the simple but profound act of paying attention to others’s experience. Now there’s a cycle I would like to see enacted.
There are too few opportunities for girls, as for women, to be honored as themselves, without being prematurely sexualized, cruelly silenced, chastised for being “bossy,” constricted or even terrorized by gendered aggression, or instructed how to adapt to untenable circumstances rather than being offered better ones. But there are some examples, and their poignancy underscores their scarcity. They are offered by men as well as women.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you’re special just being you —
playing with your food and staring into space.
—Billy Collins, “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl”
Now this is humorous! And vengeless. Indeed, it drily touches on mundane ways in which girls (and boys too) are put upon, pointing to the tiny and immense pressures they experience as they come of age. It creates some distance from the intergenerational drama, and its lightness, reminiscent of Calvino’s Boccacio’s Cavalcanti’s leap, is much needed in this next millennium. I want my favorite (read: all) pre-adolescent aunts to have as much access to this sort of jump as to images of clumsy red-suited fathers emerging from “vagina cakes.”
(That a red flag went up the first time I saw Collins’s title is sobering. Fortunately, it descended.)
A woman-identified, intergenerational flavor is not entirely absent from HelloFlo™, the company; in fact, Flo’s most important contribution may lie in her blog and the “Ask Dr. Flo” column. I hope that these offerings are as useful to customers and participants as they appear. (This may be an example of the marvelous aspect of the Internet, where a girl can find information—if she knows where to go. And to learn that, she still may need a wise elder in her corner. And so we cycle back again.)
These more promising aspects of the HelloFlo™ “brand” only serve to set in relief this confused and confusing advertisement. Sure, whack the piñata utera if you like. I’ll pass, not because I disapprove, not because I mistake the play for reality, and not because I am immune to periodical humor, but just because the pink pillow on the ceiling is too flimsy to be of interest. It comes apart too easily.
Can’t we care for young girls without ridiculing their experience, without telling them stories wherein their counterparts are mortified? They are still young, and growing up is important and worthy of attention and celebration. I bloody well hope so. If we are going to say we are saying “vaginas don’t suck,” can’t we at least find a way to show something other than an awkward adolescent slurping on a marshmallow that’s been dipped in a red-chocolate fountain? And for what it’s worth, such an image makes me, and old pro at bleeding, squeamish in several ways. This is supposed to normalize the cycle?
(I do want to try the “vagina cake”—but only after the guy in the red bodysuit who jumped out of it has left the building. By the way, what is he doing in his daughter’s vagina cake? And after all of mom’s labor, why does it look nothing like a vagina? Gee, that’s funny. Dot. Dot. Dot. Or, as the French would say, “point.”)
—Posted by Rose Marie McSweeney