Wednesday, January 02, 2008

a feminist grouch

A while back, Casey posted a link to a lament for the old Sesame Street, complete with hallucinations of imaginary friends, grouches and utter disregard for the nutritional needs of children. And real cows.

I have a different complaint.

Clare received Elmo in Grouchland for Christmas (gee thanks, Nana and Pop). We're watching it daily nowadays. Someday soon I hope the newness and fascination will wear off, but until then, I expect to hear Vanessa Williams chipper little ditty as the Queen of Trash, and see Mandy Pitimkin's crazy eyebrows, in my dreams.

That's par for the course, however, and hey, honestly, it could be worse. Those songs really are catchy. And at least Mandy tosses us poor parents an inside joke once ot twice.

No, my complaint is entirely different in nature and has to do with an aspect I suspect is another indication of the difference between the Old and the New Sesame Streets. Back in the Bad Old Days, the classic fuzzy monsters were simple. Eyes, big bulgy nose, fur in some fun random color. Add some eyebrows for Oscar to make him grouchy, and that's it. Nothing else needed. Simple. But nowadays, monsters are all fancied up. Complicated, fussy monsters instead of simple fuzzy ones.

Take Elmo and Zoe, for example. I know Elmo's an icon for the New Sesame, but his existence predates Elmo's world by many years and his evolution as a monster has been an incremental process. Zoe pops onto the scene in 1992, specifically designed as a counterpart to Elmo.

And this gets to the heart of my complaint. Elmo is a simple classic monster--eyes, big bulgy nose, red fur. Zoe, on the other hand, has a spangly hairdo, barrettes, a necklace and apparently permanently wears a tutu due to her girlish fascination with ballet. Before I was fully initiated into the wonders of Elmo's World, I thought of Elmo as androgynous: a sort of monster-Kinder for whom gender was a not-yet-significant aspect of identity. But with Zoe as a counterpart, Elmo can no longer be androgynous. Zoe is clearly marked as a female: the fussy hair, jewelry, tutu. And so in the New Sesame Street, the unmarked standard is male, and female is signified with all the markers you'd expect of frilly girly girls: hair, bows, ribbons, barrettes, necklaces, whatever.

Maybe that's not any better than just having all your monsters be male, which is certainly the case in the Bad Old Days. But the New isn't any better. Now we have girl monsters, but to be a girl means having to be specially marked as different from the norm. I don't want Clare to learn that.

But the truth is, I get suckered in too: I love Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality. And their portrayal of the strong, ideal woman is one who's smart, successful, assertive...and wears high heels. And, as RRR tells us in Sexism and God-Talk, a woman's liberation can be measured in inverse proportion to the height of her heels.

The ideal before us: smart...and yet still sexy. I don't want Clare to have to deal with this, the angst of how to be smart and still be a girl. How to juggle talent and intelligence and yes, ambition, and concern for hair and makeup and how to make herself attractive for everybody. I don't want her to feel she has to compensate for being smart by making herself as beautifully feminine as possible. I just want her to be.

But not even the fuzzy monsters on Sesame Street seem to be able to achieve that. And if it can't happen in that imaginary, sunny place...


R-Liz said...

I guess you didn't get the memo that every little girl wants to be a princess. And if she doesn't want to be a princess, then she's automatically a tomboy. Or so I've experienced.

I love the way you think, and I'm with you 100%. I do have a question for you: is there any intrinsic, innate traits or characteristics to Clare's femininity? To your femininity? To my femininity? Any inner-part of all women you don't consider androgynous?

This also reminds me of some back and forth we had on Scott's blog a few months ago about the women's conference you mentioned you're planning for some time in 2008. I asked you if there was value in having a conference just for women, and you assured me you thought there was. I meant to ask you some follow-up questions, but didn't, so I'll do it here: Tell me what specifically about a conference can make it good for/just for a group of women to do together-- is it the topics, the way things are communicated? What will be "female" about it? (And I really am sincerely curious about this, so don't think this is rhetorical or jaded.)

I'm continually fascinated by gender and how it's interpreted in culture, so thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...

Having a little girl myself, I have often wondered similar thoughts. To be honest, I am torn. My daughter is at the age (19 months) where she's starting to play dress up. She loves shoes, clothes, hats, purses, sunglasses, basically everything. Now it doesn't matter to her if it's her daddy's shoes or her mommy's hat, articles of either sex hold her interest. Yet we were just given (free) some "real" dress up clothes. Princess dresses, a tutu, etc. My husband and I are not sure if we want to keep them for her or take them to the thrift store.

That is just one item though. This raises several other questions. Do I want my child to play with Barbie? (I know for a fact she will never be allowed to play with a Bratz doll.) Is it OK that she got a kitchen set and a baby doll for Christmas? Yet she also got a fire truck, a train, and a farming tracker!

On one hand, I want her to be blind to race, sex, and monetary success. On the other hand, I want her to embrace her feminine strengths. I know the issue of sex will always be an issue. It is not something she will be able to go through life without facing. I think it's important to appreciate some of those great qualities such as child birth, breast-feeding, natural instincts...that women have been gifted with. I just don't want her to feel like she has to be the keeper of the house, the cook, the teacher, etc. I have that instilled in my mind that I have to be all of that to be a good wife and mother and I don't want her to feel that same way I guess. I don't want her to conform to the norms of this world. I want her to do whatever she wants to do and be happy with her decisions.

I have even thought about what I will say once she gets to the age where she wants to start shaving, wearing makeup, a bra, plucking her eyebrows, etc. The one I don't yet know how to approach is the first issue I will probably come to, ear piercing. Do I want her to have any unnecessary wholes put in her body? Wholes that will make her want worldly things like gold and diamonds??? (Sorry, I might have gotten off subject!)

On the Sesame Street note, I have noticed that the girls on the show are not as confident in themselves as the boys. And they seem to be a bit ditsy. Also, if it makes you feel any better, my husband grew up thinking Big Bird was a girl. You can give him a hard time for that.

Thanks for assuring me that I am not the only parent out there struggling with these same questions.

JTB said...

I tore up the memo and burned it, along with my bras.

Thanks for such great comments.

Do I think there's anything intrinsic to being female...this is a difficult question for me to answer because of the long evolution of my thought on this. In the sense of some "inner essence" of femininity, no (I'm not into inner essences, period). But in the sense that having a vagina and mammary glands that produce milk make a difference in the formation of one's identity, yes. This is an important yes but a limited yes. Having a womb and breasts that produce milk don't equate to having some "natural" feminine capacity for nurturing--I'm not a biological determinist. It doesn't make all women (good)mothers, anymore than having a penis makes all men (good) fathers. But having a womb and breasts does mean that women can nurture life in ways that are uniquely female. And this means, I think, that there is some kind of real meaning to being a woman--a different human identity than being a man.

The thing is for me, I want Clare to be able to treasure the uniqueness of being a woman--the miracle of the possibility of conceiving and carrying and giving birth to and nursing life...even if she never does any of these things. But this uniqueness is burdened with unrelated social expectations and requirements that are oppressive--the princess, the housewife, the you can be smart as long as you're sexy stuff. The real issue for me, like Marti says, is how to affirm what is uniquely good about womanhood without opening the door to all the crap. I don't want to be a man; I don't want Clare to think of herself as one, or to think she has to think of herself as one in order to escape the traps set up around being a woman. I think that's a sad sort of coping mechanism in answer to the really twisted gender realities at work in the world.

I love watching Clare play with her baby doll. She hugs it, puts her to sleep, even "changes her diaper." There's got to be a way to embrace this without also condemning women to the social consequences of reducing female identity to a biologically determined "natural" identity and role.

To Ruthie's question about the women's conference stuff...a quick off-the-top-of-my-head list: 1) "safe" space; women talk more readily in an all-female group, esp. in a religious context where most still experience anxiety when speaking in a mixed group. like my blog is for me, a conference can function as a space for rehabilitating the ability to articulate. 2) topics, yes; for some of the same reason as above, some things can't be talked about frankly, and some things are only of interest to women...(though I think this is not a necessary or necessarily good thing) 3) perspective; not that theology done by men is irrelevant (by no means!) but it is not the only game in town (anymore) and its partial perspective needs supplementing--and the lack is felt more keenly by those whose perspective is not expressed in other contexts (say, the typical Sunday sermon). 4) special needs/challenges: because of the twisted gender realities still at work in the world, and in particular the version of them at work in our churches, women who minister professionally face problems and challenges men don't--and don't have a lot of support in confronting them or help in solving them. 5) validation; ministers need professional recognition and support--conferences supply such. The bottom line for me is, if it's going to be healthy, a women's conference is a time for preparation for re-entering the world of ministry, not to be seen as a permanent alternative within which women take up residence and do ministry only with/for each other; men and women do not live in separate realities and women's ministry must be seen as present, effective, and necessary for all within the church--if the conference provides a women's ministry "ghetto" it is a disservice. (On this note, plans are in the making for inviting a male speaker--a move that has some interesting implications with regard to the different items in the above list...possibly compromising "safe space" but affirming the universality of ministry, and hopefully breaking the down the mostly unnecessary boundary of "male topics" and "female topics"...)