women

I Passed Up a Career in STEM for an English Degree—Here’s Why That Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Feminist

Yep, that's my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I'll wait.

Yep, that’s my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I’ll wait.

 

As a feminist, sometimes a newly minted humanities degree can feel a bit like a scarlet letter. After all, one of our current battlegrounds is proportional representation in STEM fields (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math for the acronym-disinclined). If you have the privilege to attend a four-year university, shouldn’t you dedicate yourself to closing the gender gap in these historically male-centric professions? And besides, don’t you ever want to have a job? Or do you like Starbucks that much?

Thanks, imaginary questioner of my life choices. Some advice: never tell a recent graduate they should’ve chosen a different field, particularly not when 40% of the unemployed are Millennials as of June 2014. That’s 4.6 million recent graduates who don’t find your faux-concern helpful.

But I can’t dismiss these concerns out of hand. As feminists, we protest—and rightly so—the lack of diversity in major Silicon Valley firms and startups. According to USA Today, the gender divide is pretty pathetic: from Facebook to Apple, Google to Twitter, they hover at around 70% male. (For reference, the total US population is 49% male.) Mind you, race is an additional issue here, since tech industries range between 70-90% white and Asian. And, of course, the intersection of race and gender provides a different lens with which to view the problem.

Yes, girls should be encouraged to pursue their passions in mechanical engineering or computer science or microbiology. We should promote toys that allow children all along the gender spectrum to experiment with what they like and what careers they might pursue. This means making female scientist play sets, and not just as a limited edition, LEGO. This means more products like Goldieblox that urge girls to develop problem solving and spatial reasoning skills, even though such toys are still generally marketed toward boys. I’m all for programs like Girls Who Code, and think that STEM education should be as gender-neutral as building blocks.

But I think embracing social sciences and the humanities can be just as much of a feminist choice as attending MIT to study programming.

Here’s the thing: in high school, I was pretty good at math. I could graph cosines and tangents. At one point, I even knew what cosines and tangents were, conceptually. (Alas, those days are gone.) Had I gone on to get a degree in computer science and work for IBM, I probably would have done fine. Guidance councilors and teachers certainly thought so, from the extent they pressured me to go for it. But I knew I would have been miserable.

So I didn’t. I took creative writing instead of chemistry, Romantic poetry instead of the “hard sciences.” Four years later, here I am, proud owner of a BA in English and Creative Writing (and so many gently used classic novels it’s probably a fire hazard). Yep, that’s right, folks: the humanities aren’t dead. Even if sometimes it feels like I’m single-handedly keeping them alive. Chat with me for thirty minutes and you’re bound to hear a Shakespeare pun slip into our conversation. Most likely, more than one.

Why is maintaining the “feelings and humanities are for the ladies, numbers and science are for the menfolk” status quo not mean I have to turn in my Feminist Card? Glad you asked.

Logically, we have to start by defining what we consider feminism. My working definition, inspired by the one, the only bell hooks: the practice of combatting gender-based oppression, or oppression based at the intersection of gender and other aspects of identity.

Gender-based oppression includes many things, but the one I want to focus on here is the devaluation of things deemed “feminine.” You know what I’m talking about. The phrase “throw like a girl” is an insult because if a girl does it, it’s got to be bad. Female emotion is trivialized, because if a girl is upset, she’s either hysterical, not to be taken seriously, or on her period. (Worth noting how cis-sexist that last one is. Even if the seat of emotion was the uterus, not all women have menstrual cycles, folks). Our society shames boys who cry, play with dolls, or wear pink, because those are all associated with something no one should ever be, if they can avoid it: feminine.

Literature, sociology, philosophy, languages, history, all these social sciences and humanities deal with subjects and experiences we’ve categorized as female. They treat the human psyche, the experience of emotions. They discuss theories of love and value and motivation and behavior. They talk about interpersonal relationships and social phenomenon. Humanities and social sciences are cultural: science and math are universal.

Does this make them less valuable?

Don’t we need the ability to look at a text or an advertisement or a speech and see its latent meanings and influences? Media literacy and awareness of social biases are crucial, and that skill set is almost indistinguishable from that of a humanities major.

Does the ability to develop complex, abstract reasoning and express it in clear, lucid prose have no place in our society? Well, if we look at the incomprehensible emails in our inbox or that poorly fact-checked web article we read this morning, we might think so. But identifying a need for change goes nowhere without enabling others to understand your point.

Feminism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about privileging one type of life plan over another. Pro-choice feminism isn’t about making sure everyone gets an abortion, but rather making sure everyone has the possibility of having one if they so choose. The workplace equality movement isn’t about making sure every stay-at-home mom morphs into a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but that social and bureaucratic barriers preventing her from doing so are removed. Same with feminism geared toward STEM parity. The point isn’t that girls pursuing science-based careers are more valued than those interested in marketing or grant writing or fashion design, but that it shouldn’t be systematically more difficult for them to do so than for men.

We need scientists and engineers and mathematicians and astrophysicists, perhaps more than ever. No one’s questioning the dire need for reformed climate policy (well, some people are, but I digress) or infrastructural improvements across the globe. But we also need writers and thinkers and philosophers and journalists and artists. Let’s value “feminine” traits as well as “masculine” ones, soft sciences as well as hard ones. Let’s make our feminism inclusive, where the most important thing isn’t the differences in our interests, but the force of our passions that destroys all boundaries placed around them.

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A Feminist Blogger Always Pays Her Debts – Victories and Failures of Game of Thrones

game_of_thrones

 

Confession: I just started watching Game of Thrones at the end of June.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m letting down the whole generation of Millennials who have been trying to make Lannister references at me for years. (And I do mean at me, since even after I announced that I’d been streaming other shows instead, the Lannister references continued to flow in. Maybe they thought they owed it to me – I’m told they always pay their debts.) Nonetheless, I caved this summer, largely because searching for full-time employment leaves a whole lot of free time on either end of perfecting cover letters and resumes.

I’m only on season 3, episode 2, so there will be no spoilers here. Okay, just one: Dumbledore dies. But having spent so much time recently listening to the epic intro music (possibly more epic when played by a New Orleans jazz trio) has given me some time to think. I was told I would love Thrones for its “strong, well-written, complex female characters.”

Now, I’ll admit, the prospect was attractive. Growing, up, I was that kid.  I devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy and for a period could rattle off extended dialogue sequences from the films. I plunged headfirst into series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritence cycle. In my “younger reader” days I was into Percy Jackson and the Olympiansthe His Dark Materials trilogy, and the full sequence of The Dark is Rising. Hey, I never said I wasn’t a dork. But I’m aware of how fantasy novels can (and frequently do) dismiss women into minor roles, plot devices, or non-speaking parts. You’ll never catch me throwing Tolkien under the bus – the man defined my childhood – but let’s take a moment to count up the number of female characters with important speaking roles. I’m at three. And I’m done.

Thrones, on the other hand, smashes through the Bechdel Test on the regular. Catelyn Stark, at least as far in as I am, is running around kicking ass and taking names. Arya is adorable and spunky (in a way that, to any fantasy-reading child of the 1990s who was into Tamora Pierce at the right age, will sound bells of familiarity at every turn)Daenerys has killed a lot of people, albeit with her breasts quite frequently seeming to do a whole lot of the work. These are characters with internal lives, motivations, and specific traits all their own. You could not sub Arya in for Sansa and expect the story to unfold in the same way. Cirsei and Shae’s dialogue can’t be switched.

Would I call Game of Thrones a feminist show? Maybe? Meh?

Would I call Game of Thrones a show directed entirely by men, based on a book series written by a man, with a female-to-male nudity ratio of about one metric fuckton to a naked butt here and there? Absolutely.

(Note: “metric fuckton” not to be used in situations requiring accurate units of measurement.)

While I absolutely appreciate George R.R. Martin’s ability to write women in speaking roles and major parts – which is awesome and let’s never lose sight of the fact that this is also an anomaly – there are also many, many things we should keep in mind before touting Thrones as the pinnacle of feminist television. Among these:

The excessive use of brothels as a plot device.

Let’s think about how so many of the most sympathetic characters use “whoring around” as the most manly and dashing of pastimes. Let’s think about why Tyrian’s entrance to the show waking up in a whorehouse is supposed to be endearing and entertaining, not troubling.

The frequency of rape scenes or almost-rape scenes

Let’s think about how these are tossed in and tossed aside again without really even being discussed. And let’s remember the feelings I’ve already expressed about rape as a plot device – for the link-averse, they’re wildly negative.

The representation of people of color

This is actually the first thing that skeeved me out watching the show. Keep in mind the way the Dothraki are represented, as an interpretation of the “shamanistic, earth-goddess, noble savage” trope linked troublingly to Native Americans. Let’s look at Daxos, the sole black man (at least up to the end of season 2), and the way he’s presented as a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, and manipulative master of fraud. Then let’s look at the way every single major character is white.

Guys, this is the great thing about fantasy. It’s fantasy. You can make your world look like whatever you want it to. You’ve got warlocks reproducing themselves in a magical tower with no doors. You’ve got zombies rising out of the snow and ravens with three eyes carrying messages on scrolls. Surely your imagination can stretch far enough to POC in leading roles.

Strategic presentation of prestige dialects

I’m not claiming to be an expert on this – I’m an English major with an amateur’s interest in sociocultural linguistics. Take my assertions with that very specific grain of salt, but still, let’s talk about linguistic discrimination. The Lannisters are from the southwest. The Starks are from the north. The Baratheons are presumably from King’s Landing in the south. The Targaryens are from Valyria, wherever the deuce that is, but is presumably nowhere close to anything. Despite this geographic disparity, Tyrian, Ned Stark, Joffrey, and Daenerys all speak in the same “standard English” dialect using the same prestige RP accent used so often in high drama even when it doesn’t make sense.

(Side note – I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I watched all three seasons of Showtime’s The Borgias in a month. It’s a historical drama about murder and intrigue in renaissance Italy, and everyone speaks in standard British RP. Why is this a thing?)

On the other hand, anyone not a prominent member of these families almost universally speaks in dialect. Prestige accent gains its prestige from socioeconomic and sociocultural factors – this is why RP is considered “posher” than, say, a northern accent, since political and economic power centers in London. What is this saying about people who don’t speak “proper” or “standard” English? It sounds like reading too much into it, until you remember the history of dialect discrimination that is unfortunately not really history.

Oh yeah, that nudity thing

There’s a reason no one watches Game of Thrones with their parents or relatives without squirming. It’s not the violence or the language. It’s those completely gratuitous scenes of female nudity in order to appeal to HBO’s target demographic. It keeps nicely in step with fantasy, sci-fi, and nerd culture generally’s long-standing tradition of presenting fully-clothed armed men wielding swords alongside women in push-up bras and underwear. I mean, I’m not here to bash Wonder Woman’s status as feminist icon, but let’s look at a side-by-side of her with Batman and Superman. That’s all.

It’s true: the male gaze is a thing. And, to clarify a point and to stop the thundering onrush of #notallmen I sense cresting the horizon, let’s talk about that for a second. A large percentage of people in the world are sexually attracted to one or more genders. (Naturally, not all, as asexuality is a thing that exists.) Which is fantastic. And some people are very pretty to look at, which can be enjoyable. Guys, I have watched nearly the entire filmography of Tom Hiddleston partly because he’s a splendid actor, partly because I have eyes and am a straight woman who finds him beautiful. I’m not saying that we should all close our eyes and lock ourselves in chastity closets. (What is a chastity closet? Don’t ask me.) What I am saying is that when a show chooses to represent its characters in a way meant to appeal to its viewers’ sexuality, and it does so in a way that disregards the sexuality of approximately 50% of the population by only representing women in sexually charged and vulnerable positions, something is off.

Am I saying that Game of Thrones would be a more feminist endeavor if there were more dick shots? I might be. I won’t deny it might help.

——

As with most media analysis, the important thing here isn’t to decide once and for all whether Game of Thrones should be used in Women’s Studies 101 classes as a classic example of feminist media. We need to appreciate the time spent developing the personalities of female characters – and, for the sake of the old gods and the new, giving them speaking roles for a charming change – while at the same time looking critically at our favorite media outlets and insisting that they do better. Without media analysis and critical lenses, we’ll be relying on blind trust that people will do the right thing. Which as Ned Stark used to be able to attest to, never works well.

Sorry. I said no spoilers. Well, that’s the internet for you, then.

The Scariest Thing You Can Be Is Free To Choose

So it’s been a little while since I’ve been able to put together a post. Not for lack of material to write about or problems that need to be torn down, more a lack of time and energy to get out of bed in the morning. College life is catching up with me, and all too often I just want to curl up in bed and watch Netflix for three hours and escape from the papers and exams that need to get done in the (very) near future.

But then I saw this video this afternoon between exams and classes, and I knew that I couldn’t write a better Halloween-themed post than this if I tried. I’ll let it speak for itself, since these four ladies are more than capable of getting their message across. This piece of slam poetry comes from the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals from this year in Washington, D.C. And, more immediately, from Upworthy.

Whether you decide to go out on Halloween night as a sexy kitten or as Susan B. Anthony, just make sure it’s your choice. Because that’s the scariest thing you can be to some people: capable of making your own decisions and owning your own body for what it is.

And those are the people worth scaring.

Happy Halloween, to those of you who celebrate. As for me, I’ll probably spend it in my apartment, eating half-price Snickers bars and watching Hocus Pocus while quietly waiting for the hoopla to be over.

Be well, and hopefully I’ll be back soon with longer posts when people stop expecting me to write them term papers.