Review: Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl

pic1Last night I was lucky enough to see Clementine Ford launch her book Fight Like a Girl at Melbourne’s Athenaeum theatre. I was keen to hear Ford talk, to come down from my ivory tower in the academy and see what mainstream feminism in Australia had to say. I was struck by how much I looked like all the other women there, with my Gorman clothing and my “alternative” haircut, and my not being a man.

Ford was charismatic and had loads of interesting anecdotes about sexism. I was struck by her “giving no fucks” attitude, and deep concern for the lives of women. Interestingly, Ford called for a new version of “radical feminism” for the contemporary world. But when MC Julia Baird asked, “So, how do you fight like a girl?”, I was surprised that Ford had little to say other than along the lines of “‘girl’ has become synonymous with ‘shit’, so we have to own it instead of be ashamed”. The suggestion seemed to be that fighting like a girl, boiled down to just being a girl.

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Reading selfie

I decided to go home and swiftly read the book to see if I was missing something.

Throughout Fighting Like a Girl, Ford documents the sexism she has experienced in her life in meticulous autobiographical detail. She talks for example about the stigma around abortions, the difficulty of having mental health issues as a woman, the mixed emotions of pregnancy, and grappling with body image issues and eating disorders. Ford’s reflections are refreshingly blunt. I particularly liked her point toward the end that, “We should be angry. Because if we aren’t, we aren’t paying enough attention” (271). I have often advocated the value of anger and the way that women’s expression of anger is derided.

But while Ford outlines all of these issues and rallies us for anger, there is a little direction about what to do with it.

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Clementine Ford

Ford’s manifesto reads as a kind of re-vamped consciousness-raising strategy ala 1970’s feminism. Though, unlike the feminist groups of that time (that would meet to talk tactics and plans for actions) Ford’s consciousness-raising (at least in this book) is largely about self-work, undoing negative thoughts and female conditioning, enjoying the virtues of masturbation, and repeating insults thrown at oneself over and over until they loose meaning and force. Ford also advocates for ignoring sexist men, to laugh in their face or just “walk away” (278).

But while some of these options may assist in surviving a sexist world, I am dubious about how effective they are for dismantling sexism. I feel like masturbating in your bathtub just ain’t gonna cut it.

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An excellent slogan from the strike in 1970

It is fruitful here to compare Ford’s strategy to the radical tactics that were also going on in the 1970’s alongside consciousness raising. For example, women gathered at the Miss America protest in 1968 to throw their bras and Cosmopolitan magazines into a “Freedom Trashcan” (where the bra-burning myth comes from), in order to draw attention to the sexism of beauty pageants. There was also the socialist feminist Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), which staged a lot of theatrical protests such as gathering to march down Wall Street and cast hexes on corporations. Even the more conservative so-called “liberal feminists” of the time organised a general strike in New York City in 1970, where more than 20,000 women marched, brandishing signs like “don’t iron while the strike is hot!”. Revolution must have felt like it was around the corner.

tumblr_mkbyo55hdo1s9zzmvo1_1280However, the feminism of the 1970’s was not without its problems. Many women of colour raised important issues about what mainstream feminism was hoping to achieve – the question became: feminism is liberation for whom? Women of colour such as bell hooks highlighted how they faced a double burden of both sexism and racism. As The Combahee River Collective pointed out in 1974:

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. 

The Collective was fundamentally concerned with building coalitions to fight racism and sexism, because of the shared interests that cut across gendered lines.

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Michaelia Cash and Pauline Hanson

While Ford is happy to pay lip service to difference (she states in the beginning that the book “is not intended to claim itself as a universal experience”), her strategy ignores the old critiques of separatism.

Fundamentally this approach is based in “identity politics”. Identity politics is problematic because it sees identity as a source of both oppression and resistance – politics is founded at the site of identity. This also leads to the problematic idea that all women have shared interests, so for example, at least on some level I am supposed to get on board with feeling my sisterhood with right-wing racist women like Julie Bishop, or Michaelia Cash or Pauline Hanson, i.e. celebrate women in power. Never mind if they’re involved in locking up and torturing refugee women, or advocating for the end of Muslim migration. Identity politics is how we get to the idea that “fighting like a girl” is simply about “being a girl”.

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LOL

Ford’s quasi-essentialist view – that really being a feminist is about being a woman without qualms – became more starkly problematic last night when Ford started suggesting that men were unnecessary in the fight against sexism. In her book Ford nominally invites men to “get on the boat…or drown” (187) but we’re left wondering – what is the boat?

Let me just pause here to say I’ve experienced my fair share of sexism. I’ve been in many a relationship with a man and bore the burden of domestic and emotional labour. I’ve sat through endless philosophy classes with arrogant boys and cried on my walks home over feeling silenced. I’ve experienced sharp sexism on the streets and in the academy, and had grown men scream at me for being a confident woman. My current partner is a woman, and I can see that the way we relate intimately and domestically is affected by the gender scripts we have grown up with.

Sexism is real.

whiteribbonaustralia_campaignribbon2I also definitely take Ford’s point that the whole “male champions of change” thing is a joke. Going to an International Women’s Day breakfast only to be talked at by endless male speakers “standing up for change” is pretty ordinary, as is being part of any space where men are in the minority but feel the need to dominate verbally. But I think what’s wrong with most of these “male champion” ventures (the White Ribbon campaign being one of the cases Ford discusses) is that they’re not actually doing anything.

Let’s imagine for a second that there was a mobilisation against sexism at universities across Australia to stop rapes on campus and let’s say it involved everyone striking – teachers, students, everyone. In this scenario, to be honest, if every guy wanted to be a “champion” by picking up all of the tedious activist organising tasks like arranging email lists, painting banners and setting up information desks at the strike, I would be 100% behind that. Maybe the people who had experienced assault could “carry the flag” as Ford suggests, but the other people could carry the stalls. Bear some burden. Do some boring tasks to educate, agitate, organise. Sounds amazing.

But the theory of “patriarchy” that Ford employs (which the radical feminists of the 1970s certainly also believed in), suggests that there is something fundamentally essentially wrong with masculinity. It locates the cause of sexism in masculinity, rather than seeing masculinity as a symptom of a larger structure that is not only promotes sexism but also racism, and every other “ism” you can think of.

bdb4eaf4df0f6e2e765392ed96032bc8e8a52a8f03d6ec29c51704e4e3ff8ce9In contrast to Ford’s identity politics and patriarchy theory, we could imagine a politics which attends to issues of identity, which recognises that sexism disproportionately affects people of different identities in different ways, but which doesn’t found the political moment in identity itself.

What this alternative to identity politics really boils down to then isn’t identity at all, but a material relation to the world. It’s class politics.

Class isn’t about identity per se but a relationship to production. If you work for a wage, you are a worker (the working class). If you extract profits from other workers, you are a boss (the ruling class). The system of capitalism needs to divide the working class to maintain control. When workers are united, they have a lot of power (hence why the Turnbull ABCC issue, trying to take away worker power, is such a big deal). Ford touches on capitalism in Fighting Like a Girl, but instead of seeing it as structural cause of division and control, she sees it in terms of merely a “market” which sells things to us. Capitalism certainly does sell things to us, but the main point of capitalism isn’t consumption so much as production. As long as we don’t try to seize the means of production, i.e. control over our own labour, capitalism keeps ticking (though it is in perpetual crisis – another story for another time). The more divided we are, the less able we are to seize power.

This perspective is critiqued for being too simple, too crude for describing the world. It’s pretty uncool to use Marxist theory these days. But I wonder why: perhaps precisely because it cuts to the quick of what’s really going on? Unlike feminism and other identity movements, Marxism appears to be the one thing capitalism struggles to reabsorb and sell back to us.

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Hilary Clinton

Men who make this point are often called “brocialists”, which irks me to no end because it suggests that only men care about class, and that the ones who do are inherently sexist. For example, the UK’s progressive Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is constantly being called a brocialist, despite explicitly trying to introduce radical gender equity policies and indeed policies which benefit working class men and women (I’m not saying he’s a full blown revolutionary, but he’s not bad). Commentators like Ford would rather get behind right wing leaders like Hilary Clinton than social progressives ones like Corbyn, because of the “sisterhood”.

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Fact.

Of course, just as feminists grappled with issues of racism, historically there have been issues with the left grappling with sexism. Sexism should always be challenged in activist spaces, and that is not always an easy task.

But all of this really makes me think that fighting like a girl has to mean more than just being a girl (or a cisgender woman, or a gay woman…etc). If we’re really going to put up a fight, we better put our collective heads together real quick, before the ocean rises and the earth melts away, before every black man is shot in America and every Australian indigenous person dies in police custody, before everyone is a refugee, before everyone is squeezed until there is nothing more to give.

Sure, unashamedly orgasming in the bathtub isn’t the worst idea in the world. But I really hope that we don’t wait until death is knocking on our door to get out of the tub and join the collective struggle.

How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynist politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

In Defence of Anger: Taking a Break from the Rational Thinking Man

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An image from the rally at ANU where students took over part of the Chancelry

Recently, I’ve been getting angry. In May this year, the Australian Government announced a federal budget that will see the abolition of free health care, the elimination of the financial safety net for the unemployed and radical changes to the way in which education is funded. Unsurprisingly (since these changes will affect a majority of the population), people have been responding. At my own university campus, there have been a number of actions including a rally on May 21 that saw over 500 students descend on the Chancelry and occupy part of the building. People at the rally were angry – they banged on doors, chanted and held a speak-out where students could express their rage and frustration at the university administration who are in full support of the proposed changes. Since the rally however, there has been a huge negative backlash with students being portrayed in the media as violent, irrational and dangerous. In response, students have been taking to more pacifist actions to demonstrate that their concern is legitimate and debates are being held that request students to engage in “polite and respectful discussion”. It seems anger has lost its currency.

But what might the value of anger be in these circumstances and why should we be wary of the delegitimisation of this form of expression?

1. Anger, if seemingly uncontrolled, is coded as dangerous man or irrational woman.
There is an idea prevalent in society that anger must be controlled – those who don’t effectively control their anger are an unknown quantity, to be feared. This is also seen as something we ourselves should fear, lest we lose control. For example, Roman philosopher Seneca believed that “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it”. Unfortunately this assumption is heavily coded along gender lines and often equates to one of these two options:
incredible_hulk71The dangerous man: i.e. the Hulk. The Hulk represents the threat of a mild-mannered man losing control and become savage to all those around him. He is a destroyer of all that is in his path, sometimes for good, but often for bad – you cannot trust this man to do the right thing as he lacks self-discipline.
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The irrational woman: i.e. the Crazy Cat Lady. The Crazy Cat Lady is a figure of the terrifying and inevitable evolution of a woman who expresses her anger. Alone, she is isolated from society, treats other creatures with both love and disregard and has lost touch with reality to the point that her speech is unintelligible. The Crazy Cat Lady serves as a warning.

2. Anger’s polar opposite is coded as rational thinking man or passive woman
The corollary to all this is that if we see anger as the ultimate negative, we end up heralding cool-headed, calm and collected as the modes of being par excellence. This avenue cannot escape the clutches of gendered expectations, where sensible debate and discussion is overwhelmingly dominated by men, while women are expected to listen from the sidelines. After all, who is more cool and calm than the rational thinking man?

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“The representation of gender is its construction- and in the simplest sense it can be said that all of Western Art and high culture is the engraving of the history of that construction” Teresa de Lauretis

So thoughtful

So thoughtful

The rational thinking man: i.e. man.  Since Ancient Greece, men have been seen as the ones up for considered debate, nutting out the problems of the world. They are thoughtful, pensive, rational. Anne Cranny-Francis has described the figure of the male thinker as, “self-defining and self-sufficient. Coded as male, he is fully conscious to himself, in control of his actions, thoughts and meanings”. The rational thinking man has evolved from philosopher king to suave and well-dressed man of the year; always well presented, he is James Bond without a gun. Strategic, charming, independent, and not afraid to sit down and play poker with the bad guys.

So sexy

So sexy

 

The passive woman: i.e. woman. In contrast to rational thinking man is the woman underneath him – coded as passive, she listens to the rational man. Entrapped by her own bodily limitations (as she is more body than mind), she must take the role of the quiet seductress as she finds her own power to control rational thinking man through the only thing she has – her body. She learns the difficulty of sharing her own views – being told to be quiet, being talked over, being ignored. If she speaks up she is marked as overbearing – and well on her way to Crazy Cat Lady land, a lonely spinster life.

Of course, that is not to say that women cannot aspire to be philosophical thinkers (I did my honours in philosophy), but the gender coding in this realm is strong and women are certainly not expected to be part of this. Indeed, the discipline of philosophy itself has an awkwardly long history of marginalising women.

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

We can easily see these codings playing out in the media’s depictions of students. Following the May 21 protests in Melbourne, images emerged of a fifteen year old woman being carried away by police (obviously an attempt to save her from the ill-fate of the Crazy Cat Lady she seems destined to become). Unsurprisingly, those in power responded by stating that “if only” the young girl had tried a more sensible route, none of this would have happened. For example, the Herald Sun reported Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks following the young girl’s protest: “If that young woman had sat down and from her honest perspective written directly to the PM to say ‘here’s what I think about your Budget, here’s why I don’t like it’, I would be much more inclined attention to pay attention to that to see her being dragged away from a protest”. In effect the young woman was told to quietly participate and join in a sensible discussion with those that hold the ultimate power over the fate of her education, within a system where she does not even have the minimum access to democratic expression – the vote.

10286872_10152023438317143_6114163734565687914_oCloser to home, The Canberra Times ran with an image of one of the female students who was leading the rally, screaming as a security guard attempted to stop students entering the Chancelry. The headline below read: “Students hole up vice-chancellor in day of anger”. Through the use of this image, the student was used as the “face” of anger. She spoke directly to the media afterwards, but remained marked as unintelligible and was not quoted in the article. Discussions circulated that students should avoid violence and this front-page image hovered in the subtext of these conversations. Anger we were told, was a violent response.

An image from the read-in

An image from the read-in

In stark contrast in the week following the rally, another student started up an imaginative and radically different form of protest outside of the Chancelry – a read-in – where people could come and study in front of the doors, to highlight exactly what was being threatened in these cuts. Men and women alike gathered every day, united in their vigil for education, sharing political philosophy texts and ideas with each other. However, when power (i.e. the vice-chancellor) entered this realm of debate on the three occasions he visited the read-in, he unsurprisingly promoted discussion that was on his own terms. Students attempted to engage him in their utopian vision of thoughtful debate, but an obstacle remained. He had no stake in actually listening to students apart from appearance, and he brought down his PR person who took photos to make sure it was successful. It quickly became apparent that the VC benefitted from the image of rational thinking man, where we all appear to figure it out together when in fact we don’t (as the CCTV they immediately installed above the read-in demonstrated).

This is not an argument against philosophy or considered thought (or men!). However, we need to be very careful about championing rational thinking man as the figure of success, as this becomes deeply problematic once we enter the realm of rational debate with those already in power. Though reasonable discussion might sound great in theory, issues arise when a minority hold power over the majority, and it is left to the powerful to dictate discourse and discussion.

IMG_1030Obviously there are huge benefits to students having discussions with each other about the ethics of how to tackle issues. But when those in charge come to play, it does students no service to accept the terms of their debate. Students should not accept their idea that anger = worst possible reaction. Why wouldn’t students be angry at being marginalised? Is that not anger-making? As I have outlined, we need to remain radically skeptical about the way in which these emotions are coded along gender lines. We also need to be extremely careful that in our encounters with authority we do not give more power to power, when we accept the figure of the rational man.

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Feminist Hulk has been smashing stuff for years

As for the utility of anger, it seems to me that the Hulk and the Crazy Cat Lady have a lot of potential – after all, things will need to be radically destroyed and a new language created before we can really get on with sensible debate.

 

Darth Penis vs. The Training of Men

Ok, so it may seem like a silly task to dissect a flippant popular culture article (although, that is mostly what is done on this blog). However, I got some referrals to this cracked.com article today titled, ‘5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women‘, and by popular demand, thought I would give a considered response. Incase you can’t be bothered looking at the article, here’s the five basic tenets of its argument:

– Boys are indoctrinated with the idea that one day they will be “rewarded” for their efforts in life, with a hot chick. When this doesn’t work out in life, this makes men inevitably turn into the Hulk (that is to say, angry, not giant and green)

– Boys learn that women must always be pretty and decorative eye-candy. They can have a brain/be people too, but they also (mostly) have to be hot. Again, when this is not the case, HULK SMASH

– Men have penises that they can’t help touching (e.g. in public places), they are super horny creatures that just want to get laid 24/7. So when a girl “shows too much skin” this is a major tease, which brings out the big, green, angry man

– Men think that since childhood, women have gradually emasculated their “core male urges” (e.g. stopped them from showing their penis to strangers as a child). This makes men embarrassed and spiteful

– Men are OBSESSED with sex. That is why men have created civilization. To get the hot chicks. The hot chicks which they actually, will probably not get. The hot chicks who they will not get, who show too much skin, and have emasculated them. This all causes resentment and a BUCKET LOAD OF ANGER. HUUUULK

All in all this article reads as a kind of feminist take on why men subordinate women. To be fair, I think that this article is well-intentioned, and has mostly come about in response to the truly misogynous comments made by Rush Limbaugh in the USA recently. However, there are some very, very concerning assumptions made in it, that should be pointed out. The main problem with this article is that it reinforces some pretty serious stereotypes about men and women, even though it is actually trying to challenge some of them. How’s that? Well…

In some respects, this article presents a blurred line between the “constructed” and the “real”. While the article is keen to preach the things that men are “taught”, is also relies on a bunch of statements about men’s “nature”. So while men’s thoughts about being owed sexy women is something that they have learnt, they have an anger-response and ridiculous sex drive that is intrinsic to being a man. The proof in this “base-urge” pudding is given as neuroscience findings, possibly higher testosterone levels in men, evolutionary factors, and/or “maybe society has trained us to be like this”. Despite this little construction-disclaimer (we learned to have these crazy base urges), the article still paints this as a kind of man-truth.

The article actually gets close to questioning the naturalness of the “man” category in point #2, recognising the kind of enforcements of male masculinity often seen in popular culture, but then goes back to talking about how when men are boys “Darth Penis” rules their primal urges to wave their wang in the face of women. So, in all of these senses, this article actually reifies what men are like, in the way in which it talks about the “nature of men”.

Most problematically, when we get to point #1 of the article, that men have constructed civilization to get some lady lovin’, but will forever remain bitter and twisted about it, I can’t help thinking of this:

"I have turned the world upside down"

In the end, I think it’s great to have discussion about what we absorb from the gender norms perpetuated in society- it’s just a shame that often in our questioning, we end up reinforcing the idea that “men” and “women” are discrete and stable categorical realities, and we end up driving that gender binary wedge just a little deeper.

Men, and International Women’s Day

Today I went to a luncheon for International Women’s Day (IWD). The room was full of hundreds of (mostly) women, from many different sectors in the community. Being there, listening to speakers on the topic of “women” (mostly focusing on the need to enhance the lives of women in developing nations), I had some deep pangs of uncertainty. As I sat there, eating my posh lunch and sipping Pinot Grigio, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what does it even mean to be a woman? Should I be proud? What does it mean to be an “empowered” woman? Where do men figure into this?…

It felt to me like the “feminist” bent of the meet was to say “look, there’s still work to be done sisterhood, keep up the good fight!”. Not a single speech considered the relevance of feminism or the importance of challenging gendered assumptions. But I was torn – while I sat there wishing we could instead have an “International Question-the-Binary Day”, I was also struck by the fact that the lived experience of many women around the world is profoundly disturbing and must be addressed (and, admittedly many women in need may not be helped much by my proposed academic gender-deconstruction talk-fest). I think that some of my existential angst sprung from the fact that I felt a deep concern over my relationship to the women overseas being spoken about, considering my apparent academic Western ivory tower.

Though I didn’t quite come to terms with these cultural qualms, I was also still stuck on the issue of the day being so overtly gendered. The old adage often brought up on this day is, “why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?” with the reply “every day is International Men’s Day!” This oft quoted interlude is problematic for several reasons:

1. There is actually an International Men’s Day. November 19. Look it up. This is not to be confused with Men’s World Day– an event celebrated in Austria in the early 2000’s, awarding “exemplary” men (including the Bee Gees). Funnily enough the day was criticised for it’s gender-exclusivity and after being renamed, the main event is now (rather ironically) called the “Women’s World Awards“.

2. Promoting the idea that every day except this one is a default men’s day kind of reinforces the whole notion that every day is men’s day. It’s a catch-22. At what point do the days stop being gendered? Is there a point of “progress” where we finally sit back and go, “yep, equality achieved!”?

With these points in mind, I think that there is a fundamental problem with the current approach to women’s “equality” in the Western world, in that it often involves a tactic of “tipping of the scales“. This is an affirmative action strategy that says: to make up for all of the years of oppression and male privilege, women are now the ones that should be privileged. And often IWD involves celebrating the achievements of women, which is great, until it slips into essentialist generalisations about how women “keep the world together“. The thing that this particular mode of feminism overlooks is, well, men (and don’t even get me started on how this whole thing forgets people that don’t fit neatly into the man/woman gender binary!). Instead of focusing solely on “empowering” women to do anything, shouldn’t we be doing the same for men (and actually everyone despite gender), so that we achieve some balance and so that women aren’t expected to do everything?

We should be supporting men (and everyone!) in parental roles, men as caregivers and carers, celebrating the men that are community sector workers, teachers and nurses – i.e. men that do “traditional women’s roles”. As well as promoting women to be engineers, we should encourage men to enter primary school teaching. Instead, we just focus on the women – and that, I think, puts both a burden on women and denigrates men (and everyone outside the binary) in our society.

What about the men that we love? What about the men in our lives that are gentle and caring and believe in equality, but that get overlooked for scholarships, jobs and other positions because they are not women or are not cut throat competitors? And how on earth can we really empower women around the world, if we turn a blind eye to the role of men in these societies? What about the men in the world that are feminists? Surely we should celebrate and encourage them too. In the end, I appreciate International Women’s Day- I just don’t want to forget about men along the way.

Brain love and tear drops: the science of emotion

I came across Brent Hoff’s mini-documentary The Love Competition yesterday. Hoff, in conjunction with a bunch of Stanford University neuroscientists, ran and filmed a contest to see who could [neurochemically] love the most. It’s beautifully filmed, and Hoff approaches each individual that is interviewed with a gentle curiosity.

So how does one measure love? Aside from the general arm-span-width measure (“I love you this much!“), one might think that there’s not much concrete to go by. Hoff and his science buddies beg to differ. The love experiment placed contestants in an fMRI machine while they focused on their “love” emotion (and the object of their love). After the scanning was complete, the scientists measured activity levels in the brain regions most commonly associated with love.

But, despite the friendly and somewhat heartwarming nature of this doco, I can’t help feeling a bit dismayed by the whole notion that love is located in the brain. For one, love is abstract. Reducing it down to three brain pathways seems incredibly erroneous. I feel like trying to measure love with an fMRI machine is akin to attempting to understanding the ocean through examining some grains of sand on the beach- misguided.

Second, love is complex and diverse. What’s fantastic about the group of people selected for The Love Competition is that they all have extremely different notions of love, and focus on a vast array of love “objects” when they are in the machine. I particularly like the woman who decides to focus on love as internal and generated through chakra meditation- how interesting!

Third, I’m not sure how neuroscientists actually get to a point where they go, “yep, these are the love pathways“. The process of thinking love/ measuring thinking love/ ascertaining love areas/ getting someone else to think love/ measuring them against love areas- well, the whole thing seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. What gets missed in this process?

Lastly, locating social concepts such as love in the brain can never end well. What if someone was put in the machine that could never produce any “love” activity- would we label them a sociopath? Does the woman crying at the end love her husband of 50 years less than he loves her?

Like Ron Burgundy reminds us, “You’re just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of ours. It’s science“.

It’s interesting to contrast The Love Competition with Hoff’s earlier work, The Crying Competition (don’t ask me why all these emotions have to involve competing, but whatever). In this, four men struggle so hard to produce a single teardrop that they quit after half an hour. When a woman sits down at the end, it takes just 20 seconds to deliver the salty goods. I think it’s easy to walk away from this video with a strong contention that men don’t [or can’t] cry. Certainly biological elements may factor into this (fluctuating levels of hormones certainly seem to make me tear up at some stages on the calendar). But what else might be going on?

Well, listening to the commentary from the men in the video almost seems to reveal an uncertainty about how to “get in touch” with emotions that lead to tears. I can’t help but wonder how much of this is a product of socialisation- a deep internalisation of the norm that men do not cry. But if we leave The Crying Competition video promulgating it as “proof” that men don’t cry, we perpetuate the very sentiment. 

I think that at the end of the day, what the Crying and Love competitions reveal, is that human expression about feelings is far more interesting than any scientific “measures” of emotion. One man in Crying even states that he is almost crying watching himself unable to cry- perhaps mourning the abstraction between masculinity and tears that his body has incorporated. Similarly, the disparate views expressed in Love reveal that there is a plethora of human experiences that we might call love.

The fact that the brain scans couldn’t adequately reflect these different experiences of “love” as relevant brain activity, shows us that such a neurochemical interpretation of love is flawed in the first place.