“The Invention of Women:” A Review for Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí’s Revolutionary Book

In 2011, Beyoncé asked, “Who run the world?” and answered, “Girls.” Almost a decade later, many of the protest signs at the Women’s March on Washington featured this same declaration. Worthy as it may be, Nigerian sociologist Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí’s first book, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, which provides a deconstructive analysis and history of womanhood and gender—and their absence— in Yorùbán society, presents a strong case against the idea that “girls” are, and have been, a global and universal social category. As evidenced by the title, The Invention of Women, Oyěwùmí lays out how “the fundamental category “woman,” which she claims is “foundational in Western gender discourses,” “simply did not exist in Yorùbáland prior to its sustained contact with the West.” (Oyěwùmí x) Moreover, Oyěwùmí presents evidence for how the Western constructions of gender, as well as sex, were brought to Yorùbáland and implemented in such a way that they became salient social institutions that eventually led to the “patriarchalization” (86) of Yorùbán history and society and as a result, the subordination of what is now the category of women.

Before I begin to review and summarize the work of Oyěwùmí in The Invention of Women, I want to foreground her definition of gender as it forms the basis of her analysis. Oyěwùmí considers gender to be “an institution that establishes patterns of expectations for individuals based on their body-type, orders the social processes of everyday life, and is built into major social organizations of society, such as the economy, ideology, the family, and politics” (39).

The work of Oyěwùmí in her 1997 monograph takes the boundary pushing scholarship of sociologist Judith Lorber and others at the time who were focused on the construction of gender, and complicates it by noting that gender was not only socially constructed, but that it was socially constructed in the West and is therefore not applicable transnationally or transculturally. To set the stage for her argument, Oyěwùmí speaks to the characteristics of Western thought that allowed for the construction of gender. She contends that the somatocentricity (ix) of Western thought, in which biological determinism is the basis for the organization of society, coupled with the West’s “privileging of the visual,” (3) made the physical human body “the foundation of social thought and identity” (x) and thus subject to the creation of gender. Oyěwùmí makes it clear that in contrast to the West, Yorùbán society, prior to Western contact, did not privilege the visual sense or the body in its construction of sociocultural meaning.

Oyěwùmí then goes on to explain the ways in which Yorùbán society was organized absent of gender and sex. One key tenet of Yorùbán society that Oyěwùmí explains is the “centrality of the family compound,” rather than gender, “in defining the status of residents” (44). People who married into a household, or “ilé,” were known as “aya,” while those in the household were known as “ọkọ.” The “aya” was considered an outsider while the “ọkọ” was considered an insider and their relationship was ranked such that the “ọkọ” was “the privileged senior” (44). Overall, the hierarchy of Yorùbán society was based on age—with older people having the most status— and thus “social positions of people shifted constantly in relation to those with whom they were interacting” (xiii).

In the latter half of the monograph, Oyěwùmí speaks to the process in which gender was brought to Yorùbán society through missionaries and the imposition of the British “patriarchal colonial state” (123). Because “access to power was gender-based” in Britain, the British arrival in Yorùbáland led to the creation of “women as an identifiable category, defined by their anatomy and subordinated to men in all situations” (123). Oyěwùmí claims that one the most impactful aspects of colonialism that led to this subordination was the colonial educational system as it excluded those under the new category of women. This in turn led to the creation of a stark gender divide in terms of power, wealth, and status, which Oyěwùmí claims is an impact that is still felt in “the contemporary period” (128).

In the final pages of her book, Oyěwùmí widens her focus and criticizes the way in which “womanhood has been pathologized, at a global level” (177). As a result, Western feminists have assumed that the experience and subordination of women is universal without recognizing that this represents a “globalization of what was once a local Western preoccupation” (177). However, because colonialism imprinted gender and the category of women on Yorùbán society, Oyěwùmí speaks to the challenge of “present[ing] alternative ways of looking at anatomic sex-distinctions without pathologizing the female” (178).

I believe the greatest strength of Oyěwùmí’s The Invention of Women lies in the fact that it paints a holistic picture of Yorùbán society and culture before gender was introduced, as well as after colonial contact. As a result, I was able to understand the way in which specific cultural institutions were changed and perverted in the formation of male hegemony in Yorùbán society as a result of colonialism. Oyěwùmí also relies on primary sources, such as Yorùbán elders, to make her argument without preemptively imposing foreign cultural concepts, such as gender, on her research, which she claims is often the case with Western and Western-educated researchers. In her words, “Researchers always find gender when they look for it” (31).

A challenge I would levy on the work on Oyěwùmí in her monograph is the lack of elaboration on her very brief mention of homosexuality. In a discussion around sexual relations in precolonial Yorùbán society, Oyěwùmí contends that “homosexuality does not seem to have been an option” (63) without any further elaboration. Feminist, academic and human rights activist Sylvia Tamale, in her essay, “Confronting the Politics of Nonconforming Sexualities in Africa,” reveals that in many African cultures, there are examples of nonconforming sexuality while noting that “the context and experiences of such relationships did not mirror homosexual relations as understood in the West, nor were they necessarily consistent with what we may today describe as a gay or queer identity” (Tamale 35). Thus, without assuming the presence of homosexuality and nonconforming sexuality in precolonial Yorùbán culture, I wonder whether or not it is even possible to state that these sexualities were absent given Oyěwùmí’s evidence of the absence of gendered identities. In other words, how would nonconforming sexuality be conceived without the construction of gender? Additionally, Oyěwùmí claims that “issues of sexuality were not really issues of morality” (Oyěwùmí 64) until the arrival of Christianity and Islam. Thus, what is nonconforming sexuality when there is no conception of moral, normative and conforming sexuality? Nevertheless, I think Oyěwùmí’s work would be strengthened with a deeper interrogation of homo/nonconforming sexuality in precolonial Yorùbán culture in addition to a discussion on the impact colonialism had on notions of homo/nonconforming sexuality.

All in all, Oyěwùmí’s The Invention of Women is a fairly accessible and relatively short monograph that is not only vital to understanding how gender is constructed, but also vital in that it problematizes the supposed universality of the construction of gender. This book is suited for anyone interested in the intersection of gender and colonialism, for Oyěwùmí reveals how the colonial project in Nigeria was inseparable from the imposition of gendered identities and a gendered hierarchy. Finally, if there’s anything to take away from this review it is this. Next time you hear/say/think “Fuck the patriarchy!” think about the contributions of Oyěwùmí, and how they might inform your answer to this question raised by philosopher and art historian Nkiru Nzegwu: Is patriarchy a “valid transcultural category of analysis?” (21).

Brandon Reid Feminist Mixtape: Flawless- Beyonce and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For my feminist mixtape assignment, I decided to submit Beyonce and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hit song “Flawless.” For context, Beyonce is a Black woman music artist who grew up in Houston, Texas. According to Wikipedia, Beyonce’s mother is Louisiana Creole and her father is African American. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is a Black woman writer who spent her childhood in Nigeria. Adichi’s parents are both Nigerian, and according to Wikipedia, Adichi has worked to support LGBT rights in Africa.

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Feminist Mixtape: “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn

In our society, women are expected to want nothing more than to have kids and stay at home to take care of them, whereas men’s work for the family is considered done once the child is conceived. No one bats an eye when fathers spend most of their time out of the house while the mother is always at home with the kids. Many women resent this expectation and wish to be able to be more than mothers and have other life experiences and careers. In her song “The Pill”, Loretta Lynn condemns the way in which women are expected to be mothers and nothing else. She celebrates her newfound access to ‘the pill’, as in the birth control pill, that has given her her freedom back in the sense that she now has autonomy over her own body and reproduction. This control over her life allows her to choose to be more than just a mother and do the things that she has always wanted to do.

She reveals how she has felt that she was treated like an animal with the line “you’ve set this chicken your last time”, in which she demonstrates how she feels as if she’s been seen as a farm animal whose only job is to reproduce. In this way, she describes how she’s felt more like a body than a person. She recounts how “all these years I’ve stayed at home while you had all your fun” and she was forced to be the only one taking care of her children while her husband could leave the house to have fun, and that now that she can control whether or not she has kids, she can enjoy all of the things that life has to offer that she was unable to before. Not to mention the physical and economic toll that comes with giving birth, as Lynn feels that “all I’ve seen of this old world, Is a bed and a doctor bill”. Women are forced to deal with the effects of being pregnant and having children, and thus this is why it is so important for people who are able to get pregnant to access to birth control methods that allow them to choose when they want to pregnant or not. This is a problem that is still prevalent today as the debates about reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood services, and abortions are all topics of political debates in which women’s access to these fundamental services is revoked.

As a wealthy white woman, Lynn’s song most closely resembles the first-wave feminism movement in which white women were the central figures and women of color were pushed to the wayside. Lynn neglects to reveal anything about the expectations for white women versus women of color and the intersectionality that is so clearly present between gender and race. In addition, birth control is not accessible to all people who need it and wealthy women are going to be more likely to have access to these reproductive products than women of low socioeconomic status. LGBTQ perspectives are also important to consider, as we need to remember that women are not the only people who require these types of reproductive products and transgender individuals are likely to have even more trouble gaining access to birth control methods. While Lynn provides an important perspective on how autonomy over our own reproductive processes can lead to a plethora of new opportunities for women, there is much to feminism that is not represented in her song.

Book Review- “Her Stories”

What comes to mind when you hear the words “soap opera”? Grey’s Anatomy? One Tree Hill? Jane the virgin? Whichever show you thought of, you probably thought of a modern example in the genre. But have you ever stepped back and wondered about the history behind the genre? Or what role does it play in society? If you’re anything like me, the answer is no! Even after binge-watching all eighteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Yes, eighteen full seasons, never once did I stop and think about the impact a soap opera could have. Whether you answered yes or no, but especially if you answered yes, I recommend you read the book Her Stories, by Elana Levine! She spent twelve years researching and connecting pieces of soap opera history in order to grasp and explain the effect of how soaps influence the role of women, and how it affects society.

In a three-part book Levine gives a very informative, yet extremely interesting explanation of the impact of soaps. As the author herself puts it: “Her Stories is a history of the US daytime television soap opera as a gendered cultural form and a central force in the economic and social power of American broadcast network television from the late 1940s through the 2010s” (4). She believes that social identities and changes in television were heavily influenced by soap operas. She works to prove her points by exploring developments and trends in media and society depending on the time period and current events.

Elana Levine grew up in Chicago Illinois. She attended Indiana University and received her Bachelor’s in English and Telecommunications in 1992. She then moved on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn her Masters in Communication Arts in 1997. Next, she remained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn her Ph.D. in Communication Arts in 2002. With her Ph.D., She started out as an assistant professor in the department of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 2002-to 2008. She continued to work her way up and from 2016 to the current day, she is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media studies. Along the way she got married and gave birth to two sons. She currently lives with her family in Milwaukee Wisconsin. With her degrees alone, it is clear research in soap operas is her passion project, she examines how soap operas affect the past, present, and future, and reveals that soaps were her main focus of grad school, even were the focus of her thesis. Accompanying the teaching, she continues to research and write. 

The book’s introduction starts out with Levine thanking those that made her 12 years of researching and writing possible. She conducted many interviews with those currently in the daytime soap opera industry including Holly Cato, fans of the field, and past members of the industry. In addition to the interviews, the majority of her research utilized the qualitative methodology, by digging into and analyzing the archives of soap operas. In order to gain access, she connected with many universities including Northwestern and UCLA to view episodes, scripts, and summaries of soap operas. With that, she also utilized the quantitative methodology through graphs and images to further her points. After describing the early technique of superimpositions to show a character’s state of mind, Levine shows an image of an example in the show Search for Tomorrow (26). Additionally, she mentions every soap opera she cites an exact episode, she has seen it (as opposed to reading a script or summary). She watched many episodes, and seasons of shows and this book also contains interpretations of her own, along with those discussed with colleagues, in a more casual style than an interview.

Part one consists of chapters one and two and stretches through the time period of 1940-1960, known as the post-World War II era. Chapter one explains the transitions of soap operas being streamed on the radio onto the television, where we now enjoy them. She takes us through popular trends for the time period, as networks were learning how to film this type of a show. The progression was astounding. Beginning with actors featured in Big Sister “standing in front of a microphone reading a script”(22), and amounting to visual storytelling effects, such as reaction shots used to “mimic characters’ states of mind”(26). Chapter two zeros in on the role of soap operas, and how they began to make gender assumptions. When tv programs began to be used instead of radios, tv stations feared that divorces would increase because women wouldn’t be able to get their work done around the house. That being said, “white, middle class, suburban homemaker”(45) women were their targeted audience. They created soap operas to entertain this crowd and succeeded in offering a therapeutic element into these women’s lives, by having characters that related to the struggles of post-war life for women.

Part two consists of chapters three through five and takes us through the peak of soap opera economic and cultural power. The period covered spans from the mid-1960s to the 1980s. Chapter three goes into detail about how much popularity soaps had gained, because of this more and more networks started broadcasting and airing soaps. By the beginning of the 1960s, soaps had earned their permanent spot on television (vs. being a Radioshow). The audience still targeted the wealthy white woman housewife, but in chapter four we see heavy shifts. Chapter four demonstrates, how with the power soaps held they could now experiment with more than just housewife struggles. Starting out as a subtle, yet notable change, the Soap General Hospital in the 1960s goes into detail about the lives of Jessie and her husband Dr. Phil, with their marital problems both at home and in the hospital, their shared workplace. Female characters “no longer to be confined to the sphere of home and family” (107). As this show was successful, among others expanding women outside of the home, channels started incorporating more current social issues, such as reproductive drama, “stories about pregnancies wanted and unwanted, term and aborted” (120). Another big shift is in the 1960’s women’s sexual desire became much more explicit and shared through soap operas. All of these shifts had a huge impact on society, making women watching these networks feel heard, and their struggles normalized, soap operas now show women are more than just stay-at-home housewives. 

Finally, chapter five focuses on the peak of soap opera culture in the 1980’s and prefaces the downfall. With peak popularity, the audience had clearly broadened to more than housewives. “Male fans included shift workers home during the day, corporate types taking lunch at men’s club, college professors and professional athletes with flexible work schedules” (157). Eventually, soap operas began showing later at night too, so that the audience was not constrained to only those with schedules allowing them to watch during the day. Students in school, elder people, and working women were all added to the audience, bringing soap operas to their absolute peak of popularity. With that increased audience, additional sponsors came in as well, making the business more profitable. Characters of color also slowly integrated into the main characters of soap operas through the trend of supercouples. Supercouples was a story that followed two lovers that were not supposed to be together due to society’s normalities. Supercouples showed couples “triumphs over structural forces” (187) such as economic equality, “class, race, and external threats” (186).  Finally, the start to decline, although the supercouples storylines were popular, they failed to keep up with changing culture and for that became unsustainable and began losing popularity towards the very end of the 1980s. 

   That beginning of the end, brings us to part three of the book which captures chapters six through eight, during the time period of the late 1980s through 2010s. Chapter six explains the struggles and eventual failures within the networks of soap operas that led to the slow decline of the industry from it’s peak of popularity. Levine blames structural instability for the main three causes of the decline. Those three causes are: “conceptions of the audience and the problem of measuring the audience, the challenge of different ownership structures and their implications for creative control, and the limitations of existing distribution system” (201). Chapter seven expands upon the ways the industry of soap operas tried to save itself, and bring viewers back. They tried to incorporate new techniques hoping to expand their audience once again. Aesthetic experimentation such as the integration of music video style performances were thrown in as a final effort to appeal to younger audiences. Unfortunately, the soap operas only received temporary rise in viewership and then back to a steady decline. Despite producers’ best efforts, by the late 2000s “a wave of cancellations… had drastically shrunken the business” (234). Lastly, chapter eight explains more efforts to make the business as successful as it once was but failing. By 2012 the soap opera cancellations had come to a close and only four daytime soaps remained on air. To end the book, Levine brings us almost up to current day, 2020, and says that there is limited space for soaps nowadays when the traditional housewife was the long thought of natural viewer. Women are not all housewives that have open periods in the middle of the day to watch as they please. The industry of course isn’t dead! But nowhere near where it was 40 years ago.

One element Levine did to make this book more enjoyable was her descriptions of soap opera scenes. When I originally read the introduction of the book to get a glimpse as to what I was about to read, Levine went into depth about all the soaps she’s seen, read about, studied archives of, and the line: “Indeed my analysis is rooted in part in my own personal archive, episodes I haved saved to videotape, DVD, or digital format over decades” (14) made me uneasy. My knowledge on early soap operas was so limited, and I had sure not seen any myself. I feared this book was going to be using analogies, comparisons and examples from shows I’d never seen and I’d be lost and missing the main points of the research. This was not the case. Levine did a spectacular job of giving just the right amount of information/plot summary to the readers so that I was not overwhelmed, confused, or getting hung up on unnecessary details. I felt all her examples of past soap operas were well thought out and explained clearly to further her points and argument.

One element that I think Levine could have improved on is sentence structure. This is a nitpicky type of critique because I honestly loved the content of this book. I thought all of her points were well stated and all backed up with evidence easy to understand. That being said, when I am reading or writing I try to vary my sentence length. Sometimes, shorter sentences are needed. When there is continuous paragraphs of long, detailed, descriptive sentences it is really tiresome for the reader and easy to lose focus. My English teacher from this semester said: “Varying sentence length is how you distinguish between a good writer and a great writer”. That goes to say, I do think Levine is a great writer. She also packs in about 70 years of soap opera history, and 12 years of research into 298 pages of content, so it is understandable for it to be necessary to have long detailed sentences often. 

In conclusion, this book is relevant for anyone and everyone to read. Levine takes an everyday media, soap opera, something we are all familiar with and have an understanding of, and does a deep dive. That common understanding does an excellent job of enticing and making the material relevant in to all audiences. In addition to giving a summary of soap operas, she explains the unrealized takeaways weaved into the storylines. Recognizing and understanding when these biases are being pushed onto you is so important when forming opinions. Additionally, I could not summarize everything, there are far more fascinating trends and interesting details following the progression of soap operas (especially in chapter four) that had to be left out. That being said, Levine has an expansive vocabulary, that may be difficult to get through for younger audiences, I’d say it’s a great read for anyone 13+. In other words, go read this book!

Levine, Elana. Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera & US Television History. Duke U.P., 2020. 

Feminist Mixtape: What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes

“What’s Up?” was a pop, smash hit released in 1992 by the band 4 Non Blondes ahead of their debut album Bigger, Better, Faster, More!. The alternative rock band, originating in San Francisco, California, immediately stood out amongst its peers due to being made up entirely of women. This was an incredibly rare thing in music at the time, especially in the rock genre. The band prided itself on being unique and non-conformative which is partly the reason for choosing the peculiar name 4 Non Blondes. This lack of conformity can further be seen within the lyrics of the song.

The lyrics for “What’s Up” were originally written by lead singer Linda Perry as she worked as a waitress years before joining the band. In its opening, Perry describes her feelings of being stagnant in life and expresses her infuriation towards the patriarchal institutions that contribute to the difficulties of trying to achieve your dreams as a woman. She says, “I realized quickly when I knew I should, that the world was made up of this brotherhood of man”.  This sentiment questions womanism and is incredibly similar to that which Betty Friedan spoke about in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan talks about the unhappiness created by the existing gender roles and women pondering “Is this all?” (Friedan 271). She further opens up by admitting that sometimes she cries in bed about and even screams out in exasperation, “What’s Going On?”. This phrase is echoed for almost all of the remainder of the song as Perry voices her disbelief that such institutions even exist and persist in the first place. It is important to note Perry’s position as a radical, as she calls out the patriarchy as well as calls for, in her own words, “a revolution”. I would argue that her position as one and her overall message, are relatable to those of famous Black radical Angela Davis. Davis was an incredibly powerful part of the Black empowerment movement, working within the Black Panther Party to push for the advancement of Black people. She is notable for also helping to strengthen the role of Black women within the party, which had originally been created with the express purpose of bettering Black men. Davis protested vehemently against existing, oppressive structures and was beaten, jailed and vilified for this work. Through her calls for revolution, Perry is carrying on this radical tradition.

Although she does not explicitly state it within the lyrics, I would argue that Perry is also speaking on the behalf of the LGBTQ community as she herself was a proud lesbian. During their rise to fame in San Francisco, the band performed at many lesbian bars and picked up a somewhat cult following with the local queer community. It wouldn’t be a longshot to say that Perry had them in mind when writing her lyrics. At the time, the climate surrounding the LGBTQ community may have been a daunting force that prevented her from speaking more explicitly on the subject within this song, which I see as a slight limitation. Regardless, the song speaks out against the established, oppressive patriarchal institutions thus making it radical and deserving of its spot in the history of music.

Feminist Mixtape: “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton is a well-known force in the music industry and, in general, the world. She is a nine-time grammy winner, while also having written over three thousand songs for various film and television projects. On top of her musical success, she has also had many philanthropic efforts, which include supporting child literacy programs and funding a COVID-19 vaccine. As you can tell by the previously stated information, Parton is an inspirational figure to all. 

One of Parton’s most well-known songs is “9 to 5.” Parton wrote the song for a movie with the same title that dealt with an American 9 to 5 workday. The song won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and for Best Country Song, both at the 1982 Grammys. It has been streamed more than 3.5 million times on Spotify alone. 

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Feminist Mixtape – “Video” by India Arie

Video by India Arie connects to the Womanist movement and body neutrality. It broadcasts ideologies found in the womanist movement by rejecting the ideals associated with whiteness and femininity. Black women are often ignored in the conversation about equality and representation. India Arie sings about not needing wealth or fancy things to be happy. Through this language, she is rejecting the idea of wealth in order to be feminine. This is part of what the womanist movement rejected from the first-wave feminists. First-wave feminism focused on white, upper-middle-class women instead of the intersectionality and marginalization of different women. India Arie also aims to spread body neutrality by accepting herself and not nourishing the unrealistic beauty standard. She makes references to not shaving her legs, not combing her hair, not getting plastic surgery, and not wearing pantyhose. This is deconstructing the ideals and standards set for women. In the class reading about body hair, it explains how in the late nineteenth century, body hair removal was normalized to show racial superiority and modernization. The Instagram book review writes, “Maintenance of white women’s ‘proper’ physical appearance became about maintaining ‘health’ of the white race in the face of migration and racial unrest” (@alokvmenon). This was an effort by men to control (white) women’s femininity and sexuality. The understanding of black women as inferior because they have body hair connects back to the womanist movement. The standards, acceptance, and discrimination between white and black women were very different. Black women had to deal not only with sexism but also racism. White men during this time aimed to control Black women while simultaneously interpreting them as racially inferior. The need for a movement that accepted all women regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and body size came from the rejection of Black women into the feminist movement. The chorus says, “I’m not the average girl from your video. And I ain’t built like a supermodel. But I learned to love myself unconditionally. Because I am a queen.” This song expresses modern feminist thought by inspiring women to take control of their lives and do what makes them happy. As a Black woman, India Arie tells the story of acceptance, self-love, and independence from the controlling society we live in. 

This song is personally inspiring to me as a Black woman because it rejects the beauty standard that is reinforced through all aspects of society. So often, young girls are told they are too fat, too skinny, not tall enough, too tall, etc. This song teaches young girls that they are beautiful just the way they are. Unlike many current artists, India aims to empower not degrade women. I grew up listening to her in my household which I believe positively impacted my self-esteem.

Brandon Reid: Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex, and Law in the Caribbean

In the book titled, Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex, and Law in the Caribbean, Andil Gosine takes an interesting approach to demonstrate a global issue of homophobia and general exclusionary attitudes that societies have adopted towards marginalized communities. In this piece Gosine describes these global issues in a way that incorporates experiential storytelling on their experiences, and broader data, laws, and systemic forms of oppression. Before even diving into the book, Gosine’s book cover greets students with an intriguing image of a person blending into a jungle, while holding a rooster. By starting with this image, Gosine invites readers to pause and contemplate the message that is being conveyed, as it pairs beautifully with what is represented in the actual book. In this book report, I will share my perception of the work’s content.

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Book Review – Superdads

Superdads: “How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century” by Gayle Kaufman

Book Cover for Superdads: How fathers balance work and family in the 21st century

The introduction to “Super dads” starts with what the author’s observation at the bus stop: unexpectedly, there were more dads than moms waiting for elementary school children. This was surprising to the author because as she states: “The point is that fathers are no longer an anomaly at the bus stop. I call these men “new” dads or “involved” dads, a sign that times are changing and men’s role as fathers are changing too. (Kaufman 2013).

GAYLE KAUFMAN is a Sociology professor at Davidson; I never had a chance to take her class, but it is a great opportunity for me and also other students who read my post to be able to ask questions directly to the author of the book. She specializes in gender equality, parental leave policy, and modern families, also she published her second book “Fixing Parental Leave”, explaining her observation of the policies of Sweden and the UK.

Throughout the book, Kaufman mainly explains the new dilemmas and social expectations involved fathers face when it comes to work and families. For instance, one of the interviewees explained how he cannot find time to spend with his daughter while working overtime. She categorizes ‘new dads’ and ‘old dads’ to explain the generational differences and the discrepancies between them. Then, she argues for both individual and societal level solutions that could potentially alleviate the problems new dads face. She presents the solutions by showing the interviews she has done with dads who successfully balance family and work. One of the examples were focusing less on the success in the workplace and interacting with superiors or employees.

Kaufman’s methods are mainly qualitative and include multiple interviews of both “old”, and “new and involved” dads. By presenting her interviews, she gives details on the challenges the dads face balancing between work and family. Moreover, she provides interviewees’ detailed narratives of how they dealt with the problem and found balance in doing both.

To give an overview of how Kaufman develops her overarching argument, she first introduces the problem statement in Chapter One: Introduction, Chapter Two: Becoming a father, and Chapter Three: Work-Family Dilemmas, describing the challenges of balancing between work and family. Then, she analyzes dads in three categories in each chapter: Chapter Four: “Old Dads”, Chapter Five: New Dads and Partial Solutions, Chapter Six: Super dads, and Chapter Seven: Single Super dads. Throughout Chapters Four to Six, while introducing the concepts she also suggests solutions by introducing the personal narrative of the interviewees.

First, to summarize the presented issue, one of the interesting findings was that fathers consider their roles as having two full-time jobs, considering their job at home ‘a second shift’. Evidence suggests that men these days are going through what women went through when large numbers first entered the labor force. In short, the facts demonstrate the pressure and feelings of imbalance men face and the consequences it brings to their lives and families. The significant cause of the problem is too much time at work – overtime and being on call. Fathers who work unusual hours face stress over not being at home when “normal” fathers are supposed to be at home. 

In the second part of her observations, she also describes the lives of “old” dads as the opposite of “new” dads, who often expresses the sense of loss that he was not there, knowing that he has missed “anything that has happened” at home. Masculinity and the provider role remain prevalent among old dads, who grew up in a society where people and scholars emphasized the importance of separate roles for men and women—the instrumental role for men and the expressive role for women. Men’s primary roles as workers and providers were seen as key to the functioning of family life and the larger society. Despite the differences between old and new dads, a recurring theme in both generations is that the fathers have long hours of work and a lack of time to spend at home. However, when she interviewed the old dads, men often talk about their own individual aspirations as a motivation to work long hours. Yet, they are grounded in external pressures and standards to which men compare themselves. As a result, “the force causing them to work both surrounds them and is internalized by them, creating normative patterns, understandings, and definitions about work. Another important theme in old dads is their reliance on their wives who become the primary caretaker and a parent. They express concerns over their missing roles of appearing as a parent to their children. 

While some fathers stick to a more traditional view of their role as a father, most of the younger fathers Kaufman talked with seeing themselves as involved dads. They are not completely dismissive of their monetary contributions to their family, but they do not define themselves as breadwinners. The transition from an old to a new identity as a father leads us to the third part of the book, where the author attempts to suggest a solution for the struggles the ‘new paternal identity’ presents. Kaufman closely examines the lives of fathers who claim to have found a good fit between their work and family. It is not necessarily that they have made major adjustments to their work lives but rather that they find themselves in positions that are amenable to family life. One of the noticeable similarities of these respondents is that they have jobs that offer a good deal of autonomy which may be used to arrange better work schedules for themselves. For instance, Walter really enjoys the flexibility in both his daily work tasks and his need to answer to his boss. He has control over what he does and when he does it. As he suggests, this freedom is particularly useful for a father of two preschool children, and he takes advantage of this flexibility when his family needs him. Another factor that determines the good balance and work effort is the father’s attitude toward his career. The fathers who are not aspiring to move up the ladder but work to make sure to get the job done to have more laid-back work experience and energy to focus on family. Gary, one of the interviewees, says he used to work longer hours and was more driven to work, sometimes trading home for work on weekends. Since his son was born, he works a more regular schedule, which means fewer hours, and he appreciates time at home, including time with his son and extra sleep. Kaufman brings interesting insights by examining the respondents and suggests that the work environment and the attitude toward work significantly matter. 

The book primarily focuses on ‘new dads’ who try to find a balance between work and family by looking into the respondent’s lives on an individual level. The strength of the book comes from a narrow topic that it goes over multiple possible explanations of the problem and solutions. Moreover, the detailed experiences shared by some of the successful ‘new dads’ can be a practical guideline for readers struggling with similar problems. For those who are not fathers that find it difficult to emphasize the situation, it is easier for us to understand the context by reading about their personal experiences. 

The weakness that came to mind was its lack of focus on policy and institutional analysis. Corporate policies related to paternal leave and social services such as child care are an important part of the welfare system to encourage parents to continue their work while taking care of their children. However, the author focused more on the cultural and social factors of new dads, which was helpful and insightful, but made me wonder about any legal difficulties that hindered them from balancing between work and family. For the same reason, I also expected to see policy suggestions and a review of government responsibilities that governs the lives of working parents. However, her second book reinforces the weakness by addressing the policy issues through comparative case studies of countries. The title of her second book is “Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution” which gives more detail on policies and institutional solutions.

Personally, the book was very interesting because I could not help but compare her observation to South Korea, a country I grew up in since there has been a growing number of involved dads even though still less compared to other developed countries. The public is unwelcoming toward these fathers due to the outdated stereotype that a child must be taken care of by mothers and also the majority of members in communities related to childcare are women. Moreover, government welfare and policies discourage fathers from participating in childcare with many companies refusing to provide paternity leave. I read the book with great interest since it touches upon the area of study that I enjoy learning more about: growing social and policy issues of involved dads. 

In conclusion, as a female college student who rarely has a chance to analyze the struggles of working fathers, the book provided a new perspective on child care and work-family dilemmas. I also think it would benefit the fathers and mothers, who try to understand their spouses, as a guide and reference for raising their children. Moreover, the text could be used to argue for specific child policies or social systems because of the vast background information the book provides.  

Book Review: The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward

Cultural propaganda, sexual assault, incest, compulsory marriage, economic dependence, control of children, and domestic violence; are the only possible reasons a woman would remain in a heterosexual relationship. As a straight woman and having had conversations with other straight women, these reasons are evident in every heterosexual relationship I have come across. Jane Ward in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality explores the societal expectations and pressures of the patriarchy upon heterosexuality and the heterosexual-repair industry that desperately attempts to mend these broken relationships. In addition, as a lesbian, in her book, she describes the sadness she feels upon witnessing the violence, control, diminishment, and disappointment experienced by straight women. In summary, her book leaves readers wondering, are heterosexual relationships worth the toxicity of straight culture?

Jane Ward is a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition to The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Jane Ward has written two other books: Not Gay and Respectably Queer. Her books cover a wide array of topics including, feminism, queer parenting, the racial politics of same-sex marriage, and the social construction of heterosexuality and whiteness. She currently resides in Southern California with her partner, Kat Ross. One may argue that because Jane Ward is a lesbian, she should not be making such broad claims about heterosexual women. I counter this by suggesting that a lesbian is the best person to observe and criticize heterosexual relationships and the burden they put upon women. Ward can compare the respect and fulfillment she feels in her lesbian relationship, to the stress and disrespect felt by the heterosexual women in her life.

As a white woman, one aspect lacking from The Tragedy of Heterosexuality is the expectations imposed upon Black women by the patriarchy. One hardship that Ward’s book does examine is the fact that many early white feminists based their arguments for nonviolent marriage and women’s rights on the claim that bringing white women closer to equality with their husbands will ensure a unified front among white people against the Black civil rights activists. However, as a reader who has now read “Controlling Images and Black Women’s Oppression,” by Patricia Hill Collins, the lack of attention paid to the controlling images forced upon Black women in heterosexual relationships, and the constant criticism of their sexuality, is highlighted. Therefore, there is a slight bias in the book to feel sadness toward white women in heterosexual relationships, because Jane Ward is a white woman. 

 The overarching argument present in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward includes the efforts by the heterosexual-repair industry to improve the enduring defects of straight culture. The heterosexual-repair industry has been flawed since its emergence. It is made up of eugenicists, sexologists, and social reformers. Ward cites three broad concepts present in the industry: they exposed the violence and mutual dislike in heterosexual relationships and reassured the population that this was natural, they took on the role of defining modern heterosexuality and repairing the problems that came along with it, and they accepted the premise that men and women found each other’s bodies undesirable and advocated for the use of beauty products to stimulate desire. Each of these concepts is inherently misogynistic. For example, at one point, experts were channeling their efforts to discover why women had annoying personalities and attempted to mediate men’s irritations with their wives. The solution the “experts” discovered involved women being submissive, lovely, and always putting their husband’s needs before their own. They went as far as asserting that women should be responsible for heterosexual success because they managed men’s emotions and should also be responsible for the happiness of their households and communities. Did no one ever wonder if it was men’s sexism and unrealistic expectations that caused them to be irritated with their wives? Or consider this: perhaps wives’ personalities come across as irritating because they are having unpleasurable sex?

Furthermore, the heterosexual-repair industry also came to the solution that women had to keep their bodies “fresh” and sexually appealing to their husbands. Advertisers collaborated with the heterosexual-repair industry in provoking fear among women to purchase their beauty products. The logic was that if women were not careful about their appearance then they could risk losing their husbands’ affection or “suffer their wrath.” One should not even have to explain the flaws in this argument and the unnecessary strain it places upon women to improve straight culture and desire. The toxicity rooted in straight culture is thanks to the patriarchy, and yet women are expected to help men improve their relationships. To conclude, Jane Ward, in her argument, exposes how the efforts to improve the conditions of straight culture are misogynistic and put the responsibility onto women. 

The single greatest strength in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality by Jane Ward is explaining the misogyny paradox that plagues straight culture. Essentially, this paradox asserts that boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed in a society that simultaneously encourages them to hate girls and women. Jane Ward provides a possible explanation for this paradox in which society is suspicious of women because they stand to threaten men’s patriarchal power. The author analyzes this in the context of violence against women and girls. The misogyny paradox is evident when a man rapes and/or murders a woman that he reported to have desired or loved. Another example of this outlook is seen in the 18th and 19th centuries in England and colonial America. At this time, wives were seen as a “necessary evil.” Many would argue that wives, and heterosexual marriages, in general, are still seen in this negative light today. While these are all extreme examples, the misogyny paradox takes a simpler form in everyday life. Often, straight men claim to love women but continue to speak over them, mansplain subjects to them, and train their sons to imitate this lack of respect for women. To comprehend the true tragedy of heterosexuality, the author must portray the disrespect, violence, and ignorance displayed by men to women who claim to be in affectionate, romantic relationships. Jane Ward understands the importance of this paradox to her argument and succeeds in making the misogyny paradox accessible and easy for her readers to understand. 

One weakness present in Jane Ward’s book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, is the lack of proposed solutions to this tragedy. The author notes that no feminist efforts have made a dent in straight culture, but she doesn’t go further to explain where they fell short. In fact, Ward describes the sexism and toxic masculinity surrounding heterosexuality as “inescapable.” Later, she also reveals that, as a lesbian, it is painful to witness straight women’s “endless and ineffective” efforts to repair straight men. As a straight woman reading this book, it is incredibly depressing to read these statements and feel as though there is no hope. The patriarchy and toxic masculinity seem like grand problems that can never be solved, certainly not by the time that I’m ready to settle down and get married. It leaves me wondering, am I destined for an unhappy marriage? Is there any point in dating if sexism is normalized in straight culture?

After reading this book and sharing facts and anecdotes with my non-straight friends, they unanimously decided that I represent The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. Over my 19 years as a straight woman, I have heard from friends, family members, and therapists that there are good men out there and not to give up. However, upon reading Jane Ward’s book about the emotional and physical strain of heterosexual relationships on women, I began to question if straight culture is worth the control, diminishment, and not to mention, disappointing sex. I will now respond to these friends, family members, and therapists that until the misogyny paradox is abolished and women are treated with genuine respect, finding “one of the good ones” will be challenging. Finally, I wish the heterosexual-repair industry the best of luck as they take on the impossible endeavor of mending the relationships between men and women, following a long history of sexism and abuse. 

Works Cited

Ward, Jane. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. New York, New York University Press, 2020. 

Troubles with the Growing Confidence Cult

Hit songs like “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo or “Sorry Not Sorry” by Demi Lovato, hashtags like #realmemonday or #wellnesswednesday, and advertisements like Dove’s self-esteem project represent the influx of self-confidence messaging in today’s mainstream media. Women, in particular, are targeted by these messages. They are told to embrace their fears and insecurities by self-help books, celebrities, and television shows. Subsequently, there is a growing “confidence cult” as the authors of Confidence Culture, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, suggest. 

Confidence Culture

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From Palestine to Ukraine: The Roles of Race, Whiteness and Gender in Negotiating Resistance

War and social media have coexisted for the last two decades or so, however, the role social media is playing in the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine stands out from other ongoing conflicts, whether it be the current bombardment and mass starvation of Yemen, the ongoing civil war in Syria, or the practically invisible suppression of West Papuans in their prolonged struggle for independence. I contend that the distinction lies in the way the Western world is responding to the crisis in Ukraine. As a very active American consumer of social media, primarily on Instagram and Twitter, I have noticed an outpouring of support for Ukraine from my American peers previously averse to posting on matters of politics and current events as well as from American and European individuals and institutions with prominent social media followings, including corporations, celebrities and government officials (see images below). These individuals and institutions are what I am referring to when I say “the Western world.” Even my own college of Davidson in North Carolina is currently flying the Ukrainian flag beneath the American one in the center of campus.

I am pointing out this distinction that is the Western world’s response to the war in Ukraine because I think it can teach us an important lesson on a) the political construction of whiteness, b) how race and gender influence how the West perceives and responds to human suffering around the world, c) who is entitled to resistance to violent aggression in the eyes of the West, and d) who is given unequivocal support from the West in their respective fights against imperialist aggression.

I will perform my analysis using a TikTok I encountered on Twitter depicted below. First of all, for a TikTok to make it onto Twitter, especially the politics-focused Twitter spaces I am a part of, it needs to be one that is very prominent and being widely discussed and shared. In the case of this TikTok, it had over 750,000 likes, 16,000 comments and 15,000 shares and 14.2 million views alone at the time that I encountered it. The TikTok itself centered a horizontal video of a young girl confronting a taller and armed male soldier. The video follows the girl as she yells at the solider who responds by walking away and laughing. The environment in the background resembles a desert with a sandy road and hardly any trees. For a moment at the end, the video cuts to an old woman who is crying being interviewed by RT, a Russian media outlet. Above the video, there is text that reads: “LITTLE GIRL TRY TO STOP” followed by two broken heart emojis and a sad face emoji, which is then followed by: “PRAY FOR UKRAINE” [Ukrainian flag emoji] [broken heart emoji]. The caption for the TikTok read: “#ukraine #army #fyp #fyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy #RUSIA #emotional.” The TikTok was posted by @staystrongukrainee, which had 127,400 followers on the app, and now appears to have been removed (most likely for spreading misinformation).

As evidenced by the strange caption and the questionable editing of the video, this TikTok exhibits many standard “red flags” of misinformation. In fact, the TikTok is an example of misinformation as the video it references as depicting Ukraine is really a ten-year-old video depicting a Palestinian girl named Ahed Tamimi confronting an Israeli soldier in the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank. It is precisely the fake nature of this TikTok that interests me the most, as I believe its ability to exist as a piece of misinformation to illicit support, solidarity and sympathy for Ukraine in the current conflict reveals a lot about the political construction of whiteness, as well as the role of race and gender in shaping Western discourse around the Ukrainian conflict specifically, but also war and resistance in general.

First and foremost, I want to speak on this video’s ability to be used as a tool for misinformation and how that is related to whiteness. Ahed Tamimi, who has blonde hair and a fare skin tone, is white passing.

Before I delve into this, I want to touch on the history of this term. “Passing” was first used in runaway slave notices from 19th century America, which Andrea Guzman claims “brings us back to the tension between being white and being free. Are they really the same thing?” This history is significant as it reveals that the concept of “passing” for white is a political construction with implications of power and freedom. It also reveals the fact that whiteness has historically been a threshold demarcated by upper-class, property-owning white people. The runaway slaves could not decide themselves whether they were or were not white passing, but rather their whiteness was contingent on the whims of white people as revealed by the fact that poor white people were sometimes cast as “mulatto” by other whites and sold into slavery.

This is all related to the case for Ahed Tamimi in this example of misinformation as it was her white appearance that allowed this video of her to be repurposed for the Ukrainian conflict, which is situated in a country where the majority of the population has fare skin and, in some regards, is considered white. In fact, some journalists are noting how the skewed coverage of the Ukrainian conflict compared to others around the world (Syria, Yemen, Somalia and West Papua as some examples) is due to its nature as a nation of white people. Another source astutely classified the skewed nature of the coverage as “blatant racism.”

But while Tamimi’s white passing appearance has allowed an account like @staystrongukrainee to co-opt and frame her resistance against the Israeli soldier to be an assumed example of resistance from a Ukrainian girl against a Russian soldier, Tamimi’s identity as a Palestinian, and therefore a non-white, non-Western individual, did not afford her resistance to Israeli aggression the same level of support and sympathy from the Western world that has been afforded to cases of Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression. Kuan-Yun Wang, in an analysis of American and Canadian media coverage of Tamimi notes that “the media frame Tamimi and the Palestinians as violent initiators.” Wang found that the media also decry her persona as “fake’ and ‘propaganda,'” all of which Wang claims to “achieve the purpose of legitimising the use of state violence on colonised bodies, which ultimately reflects settler-colonial history in North America.” In terms of Tamimi’s reception in Israel, one member of the Israeli government has called her a terrorist, while the current Prime Minister, and Education Minister at the time, Naftali Bennett stated Tamimi deserved to be incarcerated for life following another instance of her slapping a soldier in 2018, which she served time in prison for. I will also speak on popular gendered tropes used against Tamimi in Israel later on.

This is all in stark contrast to the women in Ukraine who have taken up armed resistance against the recent Russian aggression and have been hailed by Western media outlets (examples: France24, Vanity Fair, Slate) and labeled as “brave” and as “heroes,” as seen in the tweets below.

While Tamimi’s relation to whiteness (being non-white but white passing) has impacted the way her resistance is received and, in this case, commodified to illicit certain reactions, her gender has also been used to further delegitimize her resistance, unlike the case of the Ukrainian women. For example, Yasmeen Serhan in an article for The Atlantic noted that “a young girl known for her long, curly hair isn’t the image one might typically come to expect of a national freedom fighter.” While the validity of Tamimi’s status as a “hero” figure is questioned due to her age, appearance and gender, the Ukrainian women being heralded on Twitter and in the media are not subjected to such scrutiny, even when, in another case of misinformation used to illicit support for Ukrainian women fighters, the women are wearing neo-Nazi symbols on their bullet-proof vests. Additionally, I have yet to come across any source that labels the Ukrainian women fighters as “fiery,” which is the sexist term The Mirror used to characterize Tamimi.

The fetishization of Tamimi’s hair is also very prevalent in media and individual accounts of her. The Washington Post described the appearance of her hair as “wild locks swept up in a hair band,” which is yet another example of the emphasis on Tamimi’s supposed feistiness and “wild” nature, which is notably not how men, or the Ukrainian women I’ve referenced, that participate in resistance are ever described. A popular nickname for Tamimi among Israelis and others is “Shirley Temper,” which both fetishizes her hair, in its reference to the hair of Shirley Temple, and weaponizes her gender as something that is associated with rage. The general focus on her hair above everything also points to a form of dehumanization that Tamimi, and not the Ukrainian women, experience.

Other accounts of Tamimi have described her as a “metoo heroic victim” and have classified her resistance as “provocative,” which is yet another sexist term commonly used to objectify and victim-blame women. One Twitter user, who notably has their profile picture set as the Ukrainian flag, objectifies Tamimi in referencing her “usefulness.” They wrote: “Shirley Temper’s arrest was the grand finale of her parents’ grooming. Now that she’s no longer a photogenic little girl, she’s no longer useful.”

Returning to the focus of this analysis, it is clear from these examples that resistance to violent aggression is not created equal according to the West. While Ukrainians are heralded for resisting the violent invasion of Russia, Palestinians like Tamimi who resist the violence of Israeli soldiers (unarmed, in the case of Tamimi) are put under intense scrutiny, delegitimized, objectified and ridiculed. Additionally, it is clear race and gender play key roles in how resistance to violence is negotiated and classified by the West. As evidenced by the TikTok I’ve been referencing, the political construction of whiteness, and its ability to be weaponized at the whims of those looking to achieve certain goals, also plays a key role. Tamimi’s white passing appearance was weaponized to create misinformation to illicit Western sympathy for Ukraine, while her identity as a non-white Palestinian girl (at the time of the 2012 video) complicated and invalidated her actual act of resistance in the eyes of the West.  

Tamimi’s relationship to whiteness can be understood using the words of Bree Newsome Bass, an artist and organizer based in North Carolina, who writes that “The ongoing conflict in Eurasia again shows that whiteness is not an ethnicity but a fluid power construct, a product of colonialism, where inclusion/exclusion fluctuates largely according to the whims of the ruling white elite. Where is the dividing line between Europe & Asia? Between East & West? Between European & non-European? Between white & nonwhite? Anti-Black racism remains the only constant that holds this fragile construct together. There must be clarity on who is unequivocally excluded.”

Bass’ inclusion of anti-Black racism is also relevant to the Ukrainian conflict, as African international students, migrants and residents of Ukraine have experienced immense racism, as well as acts of violence, in their attempts to escape the fighting.  

This case of misinformation from TikTok I have dissected is important in that it reveals the impact of whiteness as a “power construct,” to use Bass’ terminology, that factors into the negotiation of whether or not certain people are entitled to resistance, whether or not it is acceptable that certain people suffer, and whether or not certain people are given unequivocal support from the West, even in the extreme cases of displaying connections to Nazism, like some fighters in the Ukrainian army.

As the Ukrainian conflict continues to this day, alongside numerous other conflicts and cases of Western imperialism around the world that have been purposefully swept under the rug and overlooked, it is important that we do not perpetuate narratives or spread media that supports the racist Western double standard regarding resistance that is rooted in whiteness and its weaponization. All peoples are entitled to resistance against oppressive forces, and we must recognize that.

Societies’ gender expectations and the suffocation of transgender people. 

Enough is enough. Don’t you think you have a right to express yourself without fear of being judged? Don’t you think you deserve equality like everyone else? Aren’t you tired of living a life full of society’s expectations and gender construction? Unfortunately, society’s failure in accepting transgender people in the community and hatred towards them has resulted in discrimination, unfairness, and devastating consequences for transgender people in society. A recent post on Instagram by username “Trevorproject” presents how transgender people have been facing several discriminations and hatred, leading from depression to suicide because of the social construction and acceptance of only gender binary (only male and female) in society.  

The post consists of digital artwork created by artist Caitlin Blunnie, a famous queer feminist. The post was posted on Instagram on the 24th of February 2022 by username “Trevorproject”, an official Instagram account of The Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for the LGBTQIA community specially focused on youth. LGBTQIA community refers to the people that fall in the category of finding themself as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (questioning), intersex, and asexual (agender). Similarly, The post has depicted a Black person facing their back with short hair. The background is an abstract representation of a pink sky and bright moon with tiny shining sparkling stars around the person. The slogan in the post says. “Trans youth deserve gender-affirming health care “. The bio of the post states that “our research has found that gender-affirming care can be lifesaving, and transgender youth who have accepting parents are less likely to attempt suicide.” 

The post talks about a disturbing announcement made against the LGBTQIA + policies by the texas department of family and protective services in the United States in January 2021. The legislated policy mentioned that gender-affirming care to transgender and nonbinary teenagers should be investigated as “child abuse.” Several LGBTQIA + activities, medical providers, and Instagram posts have criticized this policy as transphobic and damaging to safety and wellbeing, especially to transgender and non-binary people. Instead, the post states that gender-affirming care is not child abuse but is a necessary life-saving measure that helps in the physical as well as the mental wellbeing of transgender and non-binary people.  

The Instagram post reflects on how gender-affirming care and having accepting parents to transgender youth can play a vital role in preventing severe problems such as suicide and depression. This social media post has touched upon the crucial point on society’s social construct of the gender binary, a system in a society where all the individuals are classified only as either male or female, has failed to accept and recognize the existence of transgender and non-binary people in the community. 

Let us look at some of the responses to the social media post. Despite the awareness campaign in support of transgender and non-binary people, the comment section is a mix of admiration and hatred for transgender people. Let us see what people have to say on this social media post. One person has commented, “I hate having to live here “, while another commented, “My child and all people deserve to be treated equally for who they are, not whom society tells them they should be.” Through such posted comments, people have conveyed their struggle and the discrimination they face not fitting into society’s gender construction, making it difficult for them to live a normal life without being judged by society. Similarly, while several users took the social media post as an appreciation and a medium to raise their concerns and problems, some users made a joke out of the post.  

In response to the social media post, several users have posted a laughing emoji, while another user has said, “This is nonsense.”   This clearly shows that, despite ongoing efforts to alleviate discrimination and difficulties faced by the transgender and non-binary people in the community, our society still struggles to accept people of the LGBTQIA community. This reflects how being transgender and not fitting in societies’ gender binary perspective have made them feel very depressed and pressured. As a result, transgender people have faced a constant threat and challenge in living the life they want dealing with discrimination and difficulties. 

Our Society has been constantly supporting gender binary and heteronormative values where society assumes every individual to be heterosexual. With all of society’s expectations and pressure to conform to gender norms, society has failed to accept and respect the existence of people belonging to the LGBTQIA community. What about the non-binary people whose gender identity does not fit in society’s “male” or “female” binary? What about homosexual people who do not fit in society’s heteronormative values? What about the transgender people who do not fit it in the society’s “biological sex and gender “ perspective. Don’t they have a right to live in society normally like everyone without any hatred or discrimination? Such gender expectations have made it extremely hard for transgender and non-binary people to live in a society. Not fitting into society’s social construction of gender norms and values has made them feel trapped in the bodies they are born with because what they feel internally does not match what exists physically. Several people in the LGBTQIA community have constantly been a victim of mental pressure and such has led them to depression and even suicide.  

Despite all of today’s modern world’s understanding and advancement in numerous fields, acceptance of the LGBTQIA community, particularly transgender and binary people, is still a new concept to society. As a result, such individuals, particularly teenagers, have struggled to live the life they want. Every individual has the right to live in a manner that they want and are comfortable with. Society’s expectations and gender construction, on the other hand, have always posed a threat to transgender and non-binary people. Such expectations have led people to severe problems, from depression to suicide. 

Reference: 

https://www.instagram.com/p/CaXuOWBvUpM/

Sorry, But Pantene Ain’t Cutting It.

Pantene’s “Sorry, Not Sorry” ad urging women to stop apologizing  

Well-intentioned, well-meaning, but well-executed? Yeah, that would be a no. In Pantene’s 2014 ad entitled “Sorry, Not Sorry,” an attempt is made to call attention to the tendency -specifically for women- to apologize. The ad cuts from scene to scene of female-identifying individuals of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds apologizing to male-identifying individuals. Examples featured include a woman sitting in a conference room asking her male colleague, “sorry, can I ask a stupid question?” or a woman sitting in an office waiting room apologizing for a man’s arm taking up too much of her personal space, causing her to say “sorry” and move her arm. These are just two of the many examples Pantene touches upon in their ad. Then, suddenly, a dramatic cut is made, and the screen states in big, bold black lettering, “don’t be sorry, be strong and shine.” The scenes are preceded to be re-told. The woman in the conference room confidently says, “I have a question,” and the woman in the waiting room refuses to move her arm when the man gets in her space.

Screenshot from commercial of women moving her arm to make space for a man’s arm

Screenshots from commercial of Pantene’s message to women 

This command feels more imposing rather than empowering. Additionally, The “be” in “be Strong” is directed at women and their hair, implying women are not strong if they apologize and not strong if they do not use Pantene products. This messaging works to diminish the power of apologies and perpetuate certain beauty standards for hair care.

My major qualm with this ad is that it does not get at the root issue occurring; rather, the ad shames women for their inherent sorry problem. Granted, there is only so much Pantene can achieve in a 1:17 clip, but they should have known what they were signing up for. Therefore, this ad feels like it’s shaming women rather than “empowering women” because there is no acknowledgment about why women feel the urge to apologize so frequently. As seen above in the ad, the use of grammatical imperatives is practically yelling at women saying they are not enough. Therefore this is the individual women’s fault, which is simply incorrect. This sorry issue is a societal condition, not a group of women who don’t understand social cues. 

On top of the scenes of apologies and dramatic phrases flashing across the screen, the spa-esque background music irked me. A single piano key is repeatedly played at a slow tempo; suddenly, once the message to stop apologizing flashes across the screen and the scenes are repeated with no apologies from the women, the piano playing gets faster. A fast strumming of a guitar is now audible. The stark change in tempo and guitar accompaniment sounds so disjointed and comes across as cheesy. While Pantene is trying to empower women, the music is another example of how their ad falls short. 

This brings me to my second point, the way the ad tried to relate the message to their product is half-baked and undercooked. Profiting off of “women empowerment” poses its own moral dilemma that unfortunately seems inevitable in our capitalist society, but if you’re gonna do it, at least do it well. Sure, one could argue that no men apologizing in the video implicitly depicts the patriarchy being at fault in the matter and the greater systemic issue in educating our youth. But I think that would be giving this ad too much credit. Instead, this ad comes across as this sorry problem being a “women’s problem,” which is seen through the commands for women to “be strong,” and even in the left-hand corner of the cover of the ad saying, “why are women always over-apologizing?” These phrases feed into the idea that women don’t just apologize sometimes but “always.” The ad makes this dangerous generalization that paints women in one light and fuels the gender binary. 

This ad promotes the binary of men and women and thus leaves no room for representation of other genders. I would be remiss if I did not contextualize this ad. In 2014, this ad was labeled as groundbreaking and perceived as empowering. However, reading it from the vantage point of 2022, the ad lacks an understating of intersectionality and its relation to patriarchal society. Events such as the Women’s March in 2017 remade the concept of intersectionality more visible to the public. The Guiding Visions and Definition of Principles for the March explicitly addressed intersectionality in its framework. Pantene’s ad does not promote intersectional thinking, therefore, does not successfully get out the complexities of the “sorry” issue being a product of the capitalist patriarchy. Only conventionally attractive women are depicted in the ad. There was no attempt at body inclusivity or representation around disability or even an attempt to address how gender nonconforming individuals fit into this equation. 

In 2014, many articles came out applauding Pantene’s ad and discussing how it helped specifically women reflect on the idea of the apology. The Washington Post wrote, “pantene calls out women for saying sorry,” and The Huffington Post claimed Pantene “puts the power back in women’s language.” These praising reviews work to a. shame women for their word choice, and b. reinforce a gender binary by suggesting that there is such a thing as “women’s language” to even begin with. 

Digging deeper into the “Shine Strong” campaign, I discovered how this ad was released alongside Pantene’s “Shine Strong Fund.” This fund’s purpose was to write grants and give women access to influential leaders. However, when I tried to access the campaign, I was greeted with the words “page not found” on the Pantene website, which left me feeling even more certain the only apology needed is one from Pentene to do better.

Screenshot of Pantene’s web page on the “Shine Strong Fund.” 

References:

Bennett, Jessica. “Pantene’s ‘I’m Sorry’ Ad Tells Women to Stop Apologizing #Shinestrong.” Time, Time, 18 June 2014, https://time.com/2895799/im-sorry-pantene-shinestrong/

Butler, Bethonie. “This Pantene Commercial Calls Women out for Saying ‘Sorry’ Too Often.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/06/18/this-pantene-commercial-calls-women-out-for-saying-sorry-too-often/.

The Huffington Post Canada. “The One Speaking Tic Women Need to Stop Right Now.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 19 June 2014, https://www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/pantene-not-sorry-ad_n_5511108.

“Shine Strong .” Pantene , Pantene , https://pantene.com/shinestrong.

“Sorry, Not Sorry .” YouTube , Cause Marketing , 12 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcGKxLJ4ZGI. Accessed 3 Mar. 2022.

“What the Women’s March Teaches Us about Intersectionality.” Anti-Defamation League, ADL, 24 Jan. 2017, https://www.adl.org/blog/what-the-womens-march-teaches-us-about-intersectionality

LET GO LEGO: LEGO Friends Failed Attempt to Deconstruct Gender Norms

I have always rooted for LEGO. As my all time favorite toy, LEGOs taught me that I can build anything and bring my dreams to life. I want the company to be a beacon of hope for a more inclusive world, where young people of all unique identities will be inspired to imagine and create. With LEGO vowing to make products “free of gender bias and harmful stereotypes” in 2021, I thought their discriminatory targeted marketing would finally come to an end, specifically with their biggest cash cow, LEGO Friends. The product debuted in 2012, branded as LEGOs “for girls.” In the attempt to peak girls’ interest, the company designed the toy sets with copious amounts of pink and story lines of caring and domestic life rather than that of adventure. Not only did LEGO profit from utilizing these preexisting gender roles, but  perpetuated expectations of how girls must play differently. The year 2022 marks the 10 year anniversary of LEGO Friends and subsequently the special release of 8 new LEGO Friends sets. When coming across a commercial for the sets, I can say I was simultaneously extremely proud and extremely disappointed. 

The commercial starts off with showing a child of color, a child in a wheelchair, and an older character painting posters for a friendship festival. The video then presents the same scene made out of LEGOs. In the background, children sing “We are different…together forever!” The children laugh together and push the friend in the wheelchair to the festival. More children of varying gender presentations join as they visit food trucks with tacos and smoothies. The advertisement ends with two live actors playing with their corresponding LEGO figurines. 

Off the bat, there is a clear inclusion of more diverse characters than the original five girls of LEGO Friends. The characters differ not only in regards to gender, including more masculine presenting figurines, but in ability, race, and age as well. In chanting, “we are different together forever,” the commercial is clearly acknowledging this inherent distinctness of the characters’ physical characteristics while also equalizing their value, as friends and as LEGO builders. Likewise, the commercial does not portray the character in a wheelchair playing with others as someone to pity. The children’s laughs and bubbly demeanor make the scene not only feel normal, but fun and appealing. The young audience might look at these joyous characters and want to experience the same, want to be their friends, regardless of any physical differences. When characters of all genders, skin tones, and abilities are seen playing with the exact same set, the constructed norms that previously dominated LEGO Friends go out the window. The audience is no longer forced to believe that girls have to play a certain way, that boys can’t enjoy pink, or that children of color or with disabilities aren’t as likely to construct a beautiful LEGO masterpiece.  

The commercial ends with the words, “Colorful Together, Better Together, Different Together.” For being exclusively displayed on kids TV channels, it is a truly empowering message that defies the biased history of the company. However, upon further examination of the commercial, my happy bubble of pride for LEGOs new progressive ways popped.    

While the live actors were not unfairly categorized or stereotyped in the advertisement, the same cannot be said for the LEGO people. All of the female presenting figurines in the LEGO set itself are wearing some shade of pink, while their male presenting counterparts are not. This pattern in the design suggests that the commercial’s strive for gender equity was purely performative, as pink is still being used to maintain a binary that perceives girls as separate. Likewise, out of the upwards of 15 new characters, all of the female characters are wearing short skirts and shorts. The majority also wear crop tops and sleeveless tops, while the males wear long sleeve shirts and longer pants. Are these kids living in different climate zones or is LEGO getting off on revealing female figurines’ bodies? The most concerning aspect of the design is that LEGO also gave female characters breasts. Keep in mind that these figurines are meant to be children, like their target audience…who can be as young as 4-years-old. Gendered distinctions like these continue to normalize the sexualization of girls and embed into children’s minds that girls have to act, dress, and play differently. 

So when LEGO claimed children should be “Different Together,” did they really mean it? Are girls on the same playing field if they are still sexualized and marked by pink? Clearly, LEGO still has a lot of work to do. As the world’s largest toy company, they have the responsibility to evaluate how their products affect the self-perceptions of the impressionable youth. I will continue to root for the goal of empowering all children to create without restriction and in a way that affirms who they truly are as people, not as categories. Hopefully LEGO will do the same.  

LEGO Friends 2022 Commercial: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ubNasSqK2KM