This post has been a long time coming. Among other things, I got sick for about a week and wasn’t able to blog, and I also wanted to take care with my tone when writing this post. On March eighth, Bosnia and Herzegovina celebrates the holiday of International Women’s Day. The holiday’s origins are from socialist party movements, and it is primarily celebrated today in Russia and Eastern Europe. From what I understood, the holiday is a time not only to express appreciation for the women in one’s life, but a time to recognize social and political inequality between men and women today.
Using this topic, I’d like to address some of the disparities between gender in today’s society. I’m not going to get into rape or domestic violence, which I really just don’t have the expertise to address. The most glaring problems which I observe are misrepresentation in the media, in politics, and general sexism that I and the rest of my gender deal with on a daily basis. The film Miss Representation was recently screened at one of the theaters in Sarajevo in honor of Women’s Day, and it focused on the misrepresentation of women in the media.
I am a feminist. This doesn’t mean that I’m radical, or desire to dominate the male sex, or that I think women who are less qualified than men should be hired as a part of “affirmative action.” It simply means that I desire equality. I would like society to think of women as capable without needing a man at their side. I would like the media to focus on the intellectual qualities of women, instead of their physical qualities. Why is it acceptable to ask women, on camera, whether or not their breasts are real? I would not be surprised if only half of the people who know Dolly Parton’s bra size have ever taken the time to listen to her songs. Why was one of the focuses of President Obama’s inauguration speech First Lady Obama’s new haircut? Worse is the complete dismissal of women’s opinion because it is “cute” when they use their brains or use facts. This seems like far-fetched claim, an exaggeration, yet in Miss Representation they played a series of five or six clips from different news channels of men devaluing their female co-workers’ opinions, calling them “cute” or focusing on how “adorable” a female anchor’s hat was. The clothes some female anchors wear are distractingly provocative to the point that it is clear no one is focusing on what she is saying. Take, for instance, the outfit of Harris Faulkner, a reporter for FOX News.
And although Rachel Maddow runs a very opinionated show, the most common insults are about her appearance. There is plenty more to criticize or even attack than her appearance. She reports on politically-charged issues and offers a very strong, left-wing opinion. Instead of commenting on her choice of wardrobe, address the message she was trying to get across. Why doesn’t Glenn Beck get harassed for being overweight? His choice of haircut? Rush Limbaugh is rarely criticized on his physical appearance. People don’t question the hairstyles of Thom Hartmann or the fact that comedian Stephen Colbert wears glasses. One last thing on reporters, just food for thought. I don’t remember ever seeing an overweight female sports reporter.
In politics, women are incredibly under-represented, and even when they hold a major political presence such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held during the 2008 primaries, she got more attention for crying at the New Hampshire primaries than for her victory. Headlines read, “The Real Hillary?” or “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back into the White House?” To date, there has never been a female president. Women are consistently a minority in politics, despite being half of the population. In the US, Colorado has the most women in State Legislature, yet that statistic is only 41% (Center for American Women and Politics). Louisiana has the lowest representation at 11%. Women are perceived as too emotional, or not emotional enough, or simply incapable of holding a position of political power. These claims are ridiculous, yet I hear them every time gender equality issues are discussed. They are simply excuses to not change.
The media portrays women as sexual objects. Every day on my trolleybus ride to school, I ride past a huge billboard of a sultry-looking woman wearing a very low-cut blouse who is about to put a candy bar into her mouth. One billboard later, a perfume ad has a naked woman lying on her stomach, her nudity covered by a large perfume bottle in the foreground. Inside the McDonald’s here, Savannah noticed that on the wall behind me the picture is of a woman wearing tight-fitted blue jeans, walking away from the camera, the obvious focus of the picture being her butt. Not only are women objectified in the media, but these images are so edited that they hold young girls and women to an impossible standard. Pressure about physical appearance is stifling in today’s society, and I believe that it is more and more challenging for girls in my generation to maintain a healthy body image. Emily Voss, of VosStudios, is a senior at Luther College who does incredible photography. She based her senior project around the idea of how magazine editing drastically transforms reality. I’ll let her explain it in her own words here:
“For my Senior Project I am exploring transformation. During my semester in New York I was blown away how the models are transformed with makeup, hair styling and retouching. I watched the process as they were transformed from real, tangible human beings to 2-dimensional images in magazines that were in my mind completely void of reality. In my project I will be photographing girls from my campus with no makeup or styling. Then I will apply makeup and style their hair and photograph them once more adding the element of posing to the mix. Finally I will spend time retouching the images to make them “more beautiful” according to the laws of the industry and our society.”
For those of you interested in seeing more of her photography, please check out her website at: http://emilyvoss.com/
Now onto women in television. In the world of reality TV, women are portrayed as catty and are constantly pitted against each other. In film, even when a movie is centered around a female character, she rarely finds happiness or success without a man at her side in the end. I challenge you to list twenty movies in which a leading female is single and for the most part successful, and happy at the end of the film. I was able to come up with a few really good ones, such as “Whip It” starring Ellen Page, “V for Vendetta,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Spirited Away,” “Erin Brockovich,” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Maggie Smith’s character). There are more, but it’s difficult to think of. Most films with so-called “strong female leads” are actually women who are feisty but whose lives still somewhat revolve around the lives of the male characters. Some of my favorite movies, like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Avengers, Tangled, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Braveheart, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Princess Diaries, October Sky, even The Lion King, either have a severe lack of female leads or the female lead gets in a relationship at the end. Especially in 10 Things About You, the lead character, who is a bristly feminist (this is based on Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”), compromises a lot of her values and gets back together with the guy who played her for a bet. The popular show How I Met Your Mother gradually simplified their one strong, independent female character until the only evidence of her strength is that she can deal with the antics of her boyfriend.
I have nothing against relationships. I do, however, resent the idea that a woman can’t be successful if she remains single throughout her life. Maybe she won’t be as happy, and presumably any man in that situation would also be happier if he were in a healthy relationship. But she can find happiness and contentment in other areas of her life.
Women aren’t the only people who gender constructs affect. On the flip side, the media portrays the ideal of manliness being emotionally constipated, yet another ridiculous standard which fuels inequality. Guys also have it rough- it is not “cool” to express emotions, to be impassioned about causes, to love, to cry, to be embarrassed. Society ostracizes males, beginning at a very young age, who are sensitive and who aren’t muscular or talented athletes. It requires a strong and self-confident person to step out of the gender construct we, as a society, have created.
The final thing I want to address in this post is the sexism I have encountered in Bosnia. While it certainly exists in the States, I have never encountered it as much or to the extreme that I have here. Frequently, in classes such as Geography or Theory of Knowledge, the topics gender disparities and sexism and female empowerment are “discussed.” It’s more like a shouting match, but the majority of my class maintains that women are less qualified than men. They are too emotional to hold the important jobs that men have. The most insistent people in this argument are my female classmates. When I protested against this and became increasingly angry and upset, they told me that I had just proved their argument- women get emotional about everything and are therefore incapable of doing a man’s job. In geography, our class discussed the Millennium Goals and ranked female empowerment as the least important, with the complete agreement of our teacher. He simply disregarded my argument that female empowerment is actually crucial to every other Millennium Goal.
Other than in-class discussion, other issues here are the amount of cheating done by boys to girls in relationships, and the extent to which girls accept this. I have also encountered a lot of cat-calling whenever I wear an outfit that doesn’t involve pants: if I wear a skirt, a dress, shorts with tights under them, or sometimes even if I wear a tanktop, I get yelled at or people make inappropriate faces. Being jeered at isn’t a compliment- it’s rude and it’s intimidating. I’m not typically intimidated, and in fact I usually make a mean face or accidentally run into one of the guys making the comments/gestures if it happens on the trolleybus. I otherwise ignore them. My Bosnian isn’t good enough to give them “a talk,” sadly. It is incredibly frustrating, though, to not want to wear something nice because of the way guys look at you when you wear those clothes. Even though I dress fairly modestly, every time I have worn a skirt I have, without fail, been the object of a profane comment or icky gesture. Thank you, society, for objectifying me. I appreciate it.
To clarify, many men and boys here are considerate, kind, and care about who I am as a person. However, collectively, there is a tendency to de-value women, even to de-humanize them, and it permeates most aspects of life. In short, our global society needs to go through a serious re-evaluation of the way women are perceived, treated, and misrepresented. We are half of the population, and I believe it is time for us to have our say.