Friday, April 15, 2011

This is not the female empowerment you are looking for

Well, the shit has hit the fan, gender-wise, at Waterloo. Again. Please go read the news coverage to know what I'm talking about, and then come back. Let me just say there are bikinis, and Formula One racecars, a dean of engineering, and some corporate sponsors.

Wednesday's headline: UW shuts down student car team over racy photograph

Thursday's headline: Car sponsors decry UW decision on bikini photo

My reaction to these stories is complicated. Issues of money (corporate sponsors, the charity), power (the university, the engineering faculty), academic culture (grades and teamwork and academic integrity involved in facility use), sex (she's not wearing coveralls in the photo), gender (the discussion of expressing femininity in a male-dominated faculty), and even feminism (the university's efforts at equity and at female recruitment and retention, successful or not) intermingle in ways that are hard to disentangle, let alone understand.

I've tagged this post "righteous feminist anger," but I'm not altogether sure who I'm angry with. I've tagged it "sexist fail," too, without being able to say quite who has failed.

Overwhelmingly, though, this makes me sad. Here's why:

  • I am sad that this student needs explicitly to look for an outlet to express her femininity--engineering is still a gendered course of study, I guess, and that gender seems to be male. Having part of yourself necessarily suppressed every day to fit in can make you wiggy.
  • I am even more sad that this expression--this self-expression!--of femininity takes as its form the the most clichéd of sexualized postures/costumes for the pleasure of the male gaze.
  • I am sad that the shoot was for a charity: how awful that the best thing a female engineer can contribute to charity is an image of her own hypersexualized body? 
  • I am sad that if we're going to celebrate our beautiful bodies, we twist and contort them (hip jutted out, back arched, breasts out) instead of showing their strength and power. By way of contrast, this is beautiful and strong together, I think.
  • I am sad that I don't know her name: out of delicacy, her name is deliberately never mentioned in the reporting. Her body we see, but her name is veiled. Is this to save her some anticipated shame at being exposed, while we are nevertheless entitled to enjoy our collective titillation, on the front page of the paper, over our morning coffee?
I don't know what to think. 

I do know what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominate field. I started my academic life in a male-dominated field--computer science--and I hated it. I felt alienated, and unheard, unimportant, and disregarded. Sometimes, the teachers made fun of me. I quit and moved to English, where I felt freer to be myself. How brave, how strong, do you have to be to stay in one of those fields? What kind of daily strength and perserverence might that take?

I also know what it's like to be a young adult--a young woman--testing out the boundaries and contours of what it means to be a woman in a world where that ... is second best. I think I was 25 before I felt comfortable being called a 'woman'--it seemed to me I was more a 'girl.' It's hard, growing into this role, this identity, this putatively second-best self. 

I know what it's like, too, to test out the limits of self-presentation in this overdetermined body: in my early 20s, I went goth, and the bikinis I wore in public were made of PVC, paired with combat boots and blue lipstick. There were photo shoots. Did people stare, look at my boobs, make rude or lewd comments? Sure. And I tried to feel like I was in control of that. At 38, though, I tend to side more with Stacey and Clinton: people read you according to the scripts we share as a culture. 

Don't get me wrong: I like bikinis. I like high heels! I don't, however, see much empowerment in wearing them together, for a camera, while someone aims a gas-powered leaf-blower at you for that wind-blown effect. The clothing, composition, genre says object of the gaze, rather than subject of action. And aren't we, girls reluctantly become women, finally ready to be the subjects of our own narratives, rather than the (leggy, nameless) objects of someone else's?

8 comments:

  1. I want to comment here, but like you, I'm not sure what to think, either. I'm going to mull and come back. Lots to think about.

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  2. My comment is a wee bit tangential, but it's what popped into my head when reading this. I'm wondering where pedagogy comes into play here or where it could. I'm wondering how often university students are taught strategies to interrogate gender and to interrogate gender outside the courses labeled as women's studies or gender studies. How many university women are part of programs that provide strategies for empowerment? Perhaps this questions seem superficial, but if they are superficial, to me they still seem important.

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  3. I don't think that's superficial at all: are only feminists or people enrolled in women's studies affected by the performance of gender and what these performances mean in the consequential interactions of the world outside the classroom? No. This seems important to me too -- but can you imagine a conversation of this sort that didn't look like "indoctrination" into the bra-burning sorority of academic feminists? It's HARD.

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  4. Thanks, Aimee. You're right. It isn't superficial. It just seems like a (deceptively) simple plan for making change.

    I wonder if implementing more critical analysis of gender,race, etc. into a broader course curriculum wouldn't aid in making those courses where we do speak of these issues less inflammatory. (sorry, the notion of bra-burning is affecting my semantics! i couldn't help myself!)

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  5. Thanks for this post, Aimée. I've been struggling about what to say about this latest bit of University of Waterloo gender news (such an embarrassment of riches these days!), but you perfectly articulated what I was thinking.

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  6. Hi Aimee, great post. As a woman engineer who just graduated from Waterloo last year, I feel that you nicely captured the difficulty of being a woman in a male-dominated field. It's really, really hard to be any kind of feminine. We get made fun of for being too masculine (a male engineering I know once told me he would never date a female engineer because he's not gay) and the things that some male (and female!) engineers say behind the backs and to the faces of women who present any sort of femininity are repulsive.

    Five years of that and my knee-jerk reaction is to take the side of any woman engineer in questions about how we represent ourselves as females. I certainly don't feel represented by this image, and I certainly, certainly don't feel empowered by it, but I imagine what it would feel like to be her and to, as usual, only hear voices telling me that this version of femininity, like the message constantly being received about all versions of femininity, is inappropriate. I don't think she's right... but I'm having a really hard time calling her wrong. It's a hard one.

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  7. Why she did what she did we will never really know. Perhaps we should applaud her confidence or perhaps we should hide in shame for the discomfort pressures put on females. If it a man, not a woman beside that vehicle- would it be regarded purely as good humor or would uncomfortable sexual questioning linger in the crowd?

    I like to think of this person as being courageous. In a world (university) that questions and theorizes every action/choice a person makes. She made hers. To follow or to lead- a decision was made.

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  8. Lise -- thank you so much for your comment; I really wanted to know what other engineers thought of this, and you've articulated a really important point that I hadn't quite thought of--that to jump on this and critique this woman's expression of her femininity is to perpetuate exactly the kind of negative scrutiny that she gets more than enough of from everyone else. Exactly.

    Richard: good point. I was thinking of the way we have to read gender into this, about how probably the university has rules against men DISPLAYING photos like this one in shared work space, because it creates what they call a chilly climate for women. What to do when it's the women who are CREATING these images? Is that different? And if so, why and how? Blergh. You're right, though, that this student demonstrates, right or wrong, initiative and action in staging this shoot for herself, so there's that.

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