I started reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie … and almost immediately recognized the story. A chapter in, I realized that it had been clumsily adapted into a movie I had seen years ago – not a great movie but certainly an interesting and much more cohesive book. I am not sure why, when I have multiple books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in my to-read list, this is the one I read first. Hmm. Or why this is what I chose when I have a bunch of books in the list I’ve already begun. It ended up being not what I thought it would be.
I’ve watched a few films in recent days as well – Hidden Figures, Fences, Jackie, Manchester by the Sea, Lion – in the last few days. The Oscar bait stuff – all were okay, but none thrilled me.
And now, at last, it is March 1st. Finally. The arbitrary day I have been waiting for. Halfway through February, I managed to force my way out of my standard February depression but could not find motivation beyond that. The mood improved but the output did not. But finally I am going to fake it, force myself to do everything I need to do – or rather more than I need to.
A bright spot – Jon Stewart stopped by Colbert’s show:
The Danish TV show, Dicte, starring Iben Hjejle (most non-Danes will recognize her only as the girlfriend from the film High Fidelity), is not a bad show, but compared to other recent Danish television, it’s not exactly great either. While Dicte (the name of the titular character) follows the same kind of investigative bent as police procedurals, it is actually a show about a journalist returning to her hometown – Aarhus, and yes that is what Aarhus looks like – after a divorce. She investigates and finds herself in a lot of trouble at times, but she has a bristly relationship with the cops.
The very popular and well-lauded show, Borgen, crosses some of the same paths in that there are several investigative journalists and journalism at the core of the story. We don’t see many shows that treat journalism with much respect or importance – at least not that I can think of. Maybe The Wire (it figures that a former journalist was responsible for bringing that show to life). I like it when “entertainment” questions the role and place of journalism, the rights of journalists and the media in general. (One reason I will miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart so much. He called the media out all the time.) Dicte does not do much of this – quite the opposite of something like The Newsroom, which took this kind of questioning too far into ridiculously preachy territory. A balance could be struck somewhere in the middle.
Dicte, then, is a passable show with compelling enough stories, decent acting and of course the thrill of listening to the weirdness that is spoken Danish.
The Daily Show will go on, and it might be entertaining and topical, but I don’t know if I have the flexibility to continue watching. Jon Stewart should not necessarily define what The Daily Show was. After all, he was not working on it alone. Plenty of other comedians, and most importantly, writers and other behind-the-scenes talent, made The Daily Show work on many levels. But Stewart led the way, and he led for pretty much the entirety of my adult life. Seeing him “retire” from the show is like one of those shifts that you don’t even realize the significance of until they are upon you. Someone who was there for almost two decades acting as the voice of reason, eviscerating ridiculousness with humor, is suddenly gone. There’s a void. There will be a void. Going to miss Stewart. A lot.
The tension and irritation has been building up in me for a long time, even though I was unaware of its presence and imperceptible growth. I am not an athlete nor am I someone who has been vocally feminist for much of my life. I had a few conversations with former colleagues – women who were much older than me, who had been through some of the trials of being the only woman working in a completely male-dominated workplace (an air traffic control center). It’s not as though women are not expected somehow – still – to take notes and make the coffee, but back then it was not just understood but was blatantly stated as a requirement and not questioned. Fighting against these slights in daily work life has never been a conscious part of my life. But strides made by women who came before me paved the way for me not to have to think about such things (as well as the installation of automatic coffee machines!).
I believe wholeheartedly in equality for everyone – and I mean everyone – but when I undertook a master’s program in gender studies, the extremes of feminist theory put me off by being so anti-man. I have not personally suffered – to my knowledge – for being a woman, and I am sure that in some measure this is because I am a white woman who, in the Nordic countries where I live, blends into the scenery and enjoys the privilege that comes from so many different aspects of the accident of my birth and the conscious choice of where I live (which is another layer of privilege – having the choice to decide where to live and to go there).
Similarly Scandinavia conscientiously attempts to lead the way on matters of equality. It does not always succeed, sometimes tripping over itself trying to be “too fair” or politically correct and coming out looking foolish. But the thinking is in the right place. I also say that I have not “consciously” suffered because I don’t know that we are always aware of the things we are numb or indoctrinated to. While no man is outwardly making lewd remarks or insisting that I do something degrading or something that is anything other than equal to what he would do, there have probably been times that I was perceived or treated as “lesser than” because I am a woman. I have been blissfully ignorant to this, if and when it did happen, because my life has still been lived on my terms and has been relatively easy to boot.
Revealing this as my backdrop, I can’t really explain what incensed me and pushed me over the edge about sexism, misogyny and racism in women’s athletics. Not even looking at the flat-out stereotypes any longer (as though all women athletes must exist at caricature-like extremes, i.e. either women who appear as masculine, steroid-pumped sportsmen-lesbians from Cold War era East Germany or ultra-feminine, would-be fashion models who look cute in a short skirt). Either direction these stereotypes travel, they smack of objectification and are on display for the criticism and analysis of the world (and it’s not just men engaging in the bitterest criticism). Not because they are athletes in the public eye but because they are women.
We can see this dynamic quite publicly and visibly played out in the form of Bruce Jenner, former Olympic champion, who is now known as Caitlyn Jenner. As Bruce the athlete, no one would have questioned how he looked or would have sexualized his existence to the degree that all women athletes put up with today. And as Caitlyn, she is suddenly subject to this kind of scrutiny. Jon Stewart explained it best in a recent episode of The Daily Show. Now, suddenly, as a woman, Jenner’s worth is all tied up in her “fuckability” and her beauty.
All of this is frustrating but not quite the infuriating push I needed to get really angry. Instead, Serena Williams’s win at the French Open this weekend finally made me seethe with rage. Looking at her winning history, she is singularly the greatest female tennis player ever to play the game. Can she be recognized simply for these record-breaking achievements in athleticism and sporting victory? No.
If all female pro-athletes, particularly in a “demure” arena like tennis, are treated like sex objects who should be supermodels, what can we expect? And when the kind of racially charged, barely veiled racist language cues come into play on top of the sexism and objectifying, shouldn’t every woman be angry?
**Edited later to note that The Atlanticpublished a piece on French Open men’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, which states: “It’s that Wawrinka doesn’t look or comport himself like a Grand Slam champion. From his bright pink “pajama” shorts to his faintly dadboddish physique, the Swiss native looks more like someone you’d find at Home Depot than Roland Garros.” Finally someone jumps on what a man looks like and how he “comports” himself. Equality, right?
The other day, cultural reference point and professor Anita Hill, was Jon Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show. It has been 22 years since the US Senate judiciary hearings that preceded the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court. Hill has lived what most would see as a fairly private life since the hearings, in which she was subjected against her will to all kinds of humiliating and embarrassing questioning before a panel of all-white, all-male senators. Thomas was confirmed (by a narrow margin), but Hill’s testimony perhaps shed a light on the issue of sexual harassment in ways it had never been before. As she explained on The Daily Show, a younger generation of women, who may have heard of her, do not know the whole story behind why she is known. A new documentary about her story, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, debuts in theatres soon – and the story is one that needs to be told.
I have often reflected on how hard it is to fully understand history and precedent without context. One example is that of the struggle for women’s equality and feminist theory. It is misleading to frame – or phrase – it this way because there really is too much nuance and depth just in this struggle – too many offshoots and movements in every struggle. That is, women’s studies can be a very broad umbrella covering everything from women in history to “mainstream” feminism to radical feminism – to all kinds of perspectives about “subcategories” of these “feminisms”. I put quotation marks around all these terms because they have been analyzed to such extremes by the academics in gender, cultural, anthropological and sociological studies, that, even if I could make sense of all the categories, I don’t think this is the place to go into it. It’s enough just to say that discussing one woman (Hill) who “spoke truth to power” crosses into multiple categories and is intrinsic to so many of the narratives of these categories. But ultimately it comes down to the story of one woman, which, when put into context, shows the outline of a much bigger, longer and more complex struggle.
When I dubiously undertook an MA degree in gender studies a number of years ago (which I just as casually dropped), I found it easy to dismiss a lot of the rhetoric and theory around women’s studies. A lot of it, it seemed, was anti-man/anti-human in many ways and tried to assign some kind of superiority to women. I was not interested in that. But if one were to continue reading and digging in, it would be possible to find the important links between theory and academic rigor on the subject and real-life applications. When I was enrolled in the program, I found myself complaining to a former colleague, a woman who was much older than me (my parents’ age), who had been working in a male-dominated, highly technical US government agency for her entire career. While she took some of her opinions (anti-man) to extremes, she made good points about how she had seen things markedly change in the workplace for women over the course of her career, even if on some level it still felt backwards at times. When she began, the sexual harassment Anita Hill highlighted as well as the tendency for male employees to treat female employees, at whatever level, as their personal secretaries (at best) or as sexual objects (at worst) was commonplace and accepted. And what woman, perhaps just glad that she was able to get the job she had, was going to make waves about that?
My former colleague’s point contextualized a lot of the theory I read about – institutional discrimination and the unspoken, tacit acceptance of harassment (and the lack of a definition of, let alone a prohibition of, said harassment) were also the norm for a long time. Only slow, incremental work against these ingrained ways of existing in workplaces and the courage of the women who stepped forward – either in their workplaces or in the scholastic realm (or a combination of both) could create the environment I took for granted when I started reading these gender studies texts.
This dovetails with an unrelated story I recently read about the need for academics and intellectuals to engage in public discourse and be actively on political and policy issues. The article discusses two professors who were recently dismissed for reasons related to not bringing in enough grant money; not because they did not deliver quality education, mentorship or broad political engagement. The whole thing disturbed me, as I realized that these professors, and professors like Anita Hill, are essential to both good education and to public and civil dialogue and policymaking. When I read my gender studies textbooks and was mystified by a lot of nonsense that needed to be waded through to get to genuine understanding of issues, I needed this kind of leadership and mentorship to contextualize the work.
The Nation article referenced above cites a New York Times op-ed article, which entreats academics to get involved in public debate, stating that today’s academics “have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”. This captured exactly what I felt – the “hyperspecialization” had erased context from the sometimes very thoughtful and rigorous academic work. True mentors, engaged politically and in society, provide perspective and context and an historical framework. While the professors cited in the article have been asked to leave their positions for fundraising reasons, I suspect the whole higher education system in America is following the corporate model, and these professors are marginalized by doing what they really should be doing. And Anita Hill – well, she has found her niche – but not without having been punished publicly and by much of society for having been a kind of whistleblower for the real issues that underpin the academic thinking that she (and other gender studies/women’s studies professors) works to make a larger part of public discourse. People trying to make real change and have a lasting impact get punished no matter how they go about it.
This is not to say that sexual harassment no longer exists – I am quite sure it does. But a sensitivity to it has been raised, at least in most private and public sector workplaces. There are mechanisms in place to try to deal with it. Is the system perfect? No. But the Anita Hills of the world helped us reach a place where sexual harassment is not tolerated as just a part of doing business.
On an only semi-related note, when I saw that Anita Hill was the guest on The Daily Show, the first thing that came to mind for me was a line from a Sonic Youth song (“Youth Against Fascism”: “I believe Anita Hill…”). I often think about these kinds of cultural references in songs. They are so timely in the moment, and the people embracing these songs can instantly connect to what these references mean. But without reminders some of the references become lost. I should probably make a list of 1990s references just for the sake of seeing how often this happens and how often I find myself explaining these references to younger people.
For now, I can only immediately think of references from Ice-T’s O.G. album in which he referred to Tipper Gore and later to “Bush and his crippled bitch”. What person today (not of my generation) is even going to remember what these mentions referred to? People barely even remember Tipper as the unfortunate victim of Al Gore’s staged kiss during the 2000 presidential election, let alone remember her as the crusader who wanted to put parental labels on CDs warning about explicit lyrics. This was a major, burning issue at the time, challenging First Amendment issues about free speech and censorship. But now – most young people would question, “CDs? What are CDs?” And Ice-T referred to Bush Sr and his wife. And kids – would they even know that Ice-T was ever something other than a cop on TV and a reality-TV star? Haha.
In other news (or non-news), what the hell is wrong with Fox News and other conservative talking heads? I cannot come up with words – nothing that has not already been said. They have started blabbing about how free healthcare disincentivizes working. Who says it best? Why, Jon Stewart, of course!
Writing (oh so seamless the segue) about disincentives to work and purported laziness, I was heartened to see a series of articles from Virgin on the future of flexwork (Richard Branson is a big supporter of flexible work solutions). Three cheers! It’s one thing for me to bang my own pots and pans on the subject of flexible, remote and virtual work (only I hear the ceaseless clanging – and maybe a handful of other folks who happen upon this blog). It is another thing entirely when someone as respected and well-known as Richard Branson puts his weight behind this flexibility.
Of course, another aspect of flexible work, as I have learned since the dawn of my professional life, is doing the most flexible kind of work there is (and that means you will get a lot of flexibility but you are going to have to be equally flexible in kind – and sometimes to your own detriment): freelancing. I find these days that when I apply for jobs that are not ideal for me but my skill set matches some other need a company has, I get calls on occasion offering me freelance projects, and I cannot complain.
On a slightly tangential note, I will never get used to how potential employers in Scandinavia, in formal interview settings, often use the word “shit” in interview conversation. This must be a failure to understand that “shit” is not quite the casual profanity that they imagine it to be. (It makes me laugh.)
As for the music and magic of hypocrisy, who embodies it better than my favorite punching bag, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! disaster fame? The Virgin remote work segment highlights the hypocrisy and head-scratching quality of Mayer’s decision to end distance-work options for her employees (“How odd that the head of a tech company that provides online communication tools doesn’t see the irony in that statement?”). Mayer has become the lightning rod for this issue, really. One article I read questioned the fairness of piling all the blame on Mayer when other large corporations scaled back or eliminated their distance work options at the same time (e.g. Best Buy). The hypocrisy of it – the real rub – is precisely what the Virgin article on supporting remote work points out – a tech company supposedly at the forefront (or wanting to believe it is still at the forefront) of innovation and online communication is taking the workplace back to horse-and-buggy days when most of the tech world is, I don’t know, driving a Tesla or taking a high-speed train.
Another nod to hypocrisy, even if not an entirely matching overlap, is the recent decision of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark to kill a perfectly healthy young giraffe in its care and feed it to the zoo’s lions. I posted something about this on my Facebook wall, which sparked an immediate argument between two people who are strangers across the world from each other. One argued that those of us who were lamenting the giraffe’s senseless death were hypocrites who cannot handle how nature works when it’s shown to us with transparency. While I can appreciate the argument on its surface, the bottom line is – this happened in a ZOO, not the wild. This took place, apparently, in front of zoo visitors (the killing and the feeding pieces to lions). Yeah, if a family went on safari somewhere or were out in the wild, maybe “nature” and its transparency would be expected. In the zoo? Not so much. The zoo has defended its decision and now is paying an unfortunate price (I saw on the news that the zoo’s employees are receiving death threats now).
Back to the flexwork thing – all the articles come down to one thing: trust. Flexwork is possible when you have trust and no need to micromanage. You would also think we could trust a zoo not to kill a juvenile giraffe, and maybe once upon a time, people would have thought Marissa Mayer would not take a giant tech company back to Little House on the Prairie.