Friday, July 29, 2011

Legally Blonde: Femininity vs. Intelligence

Women are often advised to cut their hair short for better success gaining employment. Michelle Bachman is criticized for spending too much money on her appearance, as if caring that much about one's appearance makes one a poor leader. Hillary Clinton is mocked for being too masculine. And in the Legally Blonde movies, Elle Woods is assumed to be stupid, simple minded, and unable to succeed in law or politics because of her overt femininity.

Too often, if a woman shows her femininity, people assume she is stupid. I'm not immune to this thinking: sometimes I see a group of girls in super girly clothes, giggling and squealing together, and annoyed, I roll my eyes and think "please God, save me from the stupid." But it is problematic when we see femininity as being incompatible with the workplace, or at least most workplaces (often femininity is seen as compatible with working in industries such as fashion or wedding planning, which happen to be frequently recommended careers in young women's magazines). This is because the underlying assumption is that being a woman is incompatible with being successful in the workplace. Naturally, people still make jokes that PMS, and women's assumed emotional tendencies, interfere with a woman's ability to do her job.

Feminism isn't about eschewing femininity with a strong hand and encouraging women to be "like men," nor is it about compelling women to be "true to their gender" and embrace femininity. Rather, feminism is about believing that there is no right way to be a woman, that how feminine a woman is in her presentation should have no bearing on her perceived ability to be successful in her career. That a female politician's support should be based on her politics, not the length of her hair or the silhouette of her suits.

To me, the Legally Blonde movies don't idealize femininity, nor did they ever make me feel bad about the way I look. Rather, they taught me that whether I wear black or pink, I can kick ass in anything I choose to do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Wildly Inappropriate" Episode of Dance Moms

I'm watching a re-run of last week's episode of Dance Moms, my new guilty pleasure, and the focus of the episode is on the girls wearing extra skimpy dance costumes and performing an extra sexy dance for a competition. Think the infamous "Single Ladies" dance that made headlines last year.

Now, there were two conflicting opinions. Most of the dance moms thought the costumes and routines were extremely inappropriate. Personally, I agree with them. Then the choreographer and one of the dance moms made the point that a lot of successful dance groups wear that stuff, and do dances like that. To them, that level of sexualization is just necessary to be competitive in the dance world. And sadly, they're right.

Let's get one thing straight: I support dance, and I support cheerleading. I support any physical activity that can (potentially) teach girls to value their bodies for what they do rather than what they look like, or what they can do for men. Studies have shown that, statistically, girls who participate in sports and physical activities are less likely to participate in risky behaviors such as drugs and underage drinking; casual, unprotected sex; gang activity; and eating disorders. Not to mention, the endorphins from practices and success of doing well can boost a girl's confidence and test scores. This is why the Women's Sports Foundation launched its GoGirlGo! initiative, which gives money to programs that help underprivileged, at-risk girls get active, giving them a better shot at a bright future. Dance and cheerleading can be very good for girls and young women.

That said, there is a sexualizing element that needs to be addressed. My sister's an all-star cheerleader, and I've seen what a lot of the successful squads wear: short, short skirts, cropped tops, and lots and lots of makeup. These aren't just young women wearing skimpy outfits and pageant-level amounts of makeup, I've seen seven year-olds wear stuff like that, and it's a little disturbing. The dance world has the same problem. It's not just a few gyms and studios pushing the limits, it's a widespread problem that's often rewarded with top titles and trophies. Now, on Dance Moms the girls did not place, and the sexual nature of their routine was probably the culprit. But that was a single competition in Lancaster, a conservative area, if they had done the same routine at the Phoenix competition where the choreographer got the idea to do a steamy number, they might have won.

What message are we sending these girls when the teams when sexy equals success for so many teams?

I do understand that revealing uniforms make it easier to move. As a young woman, I get that girls probably get a boost of confidence from feeling sexy in those outfits. That is, the girls who have the "typical" cheerleader/dancer body (skinny). What about the girls who, despite the exercise they get from practices, aren't as skinny and don't feel comfortable, forget sexy, having to reveal so much of their bodies? Skimpy cheerleading uniforms may make some girls feel alienated from the sport because of their bodies. If being sexy is seen as a par for the course, a requirement for success in competition, girls who are unwilling to dance and dress in a suggestive nature might feel alienated as well. In fact, there was a six year-old girl who was kicked off her squad, not because she said anything, but because her mom expressed concern over a cheer where girls chant about shaking their booties.

Abby Miller, the owner of the dance studio in Dance Moms, does not take kindly to parents expressing concerns over their kids' dancing. She says that when a parent opens their mouth, they ruin their child. And yes, that is sometimes true. Doing theater in high school, the director made it clear that we were to ignore any notes our parents gave us about the performance. Overly involved parents have the potential to undo what is taught in the gym or studio. However, in this case, parents should be outspoken when they feel that something their daughters are being made to wear or do might be too sexual. It's a parent's responsibility to protect their daughter from early sexualization and exploitation.

This isn't about young women choosing to be sexy and exploring their sexualities. This is about girls having no choice but to be sexy, not realizing the implications of their actions. These girls are at risk of growing up with a manufactured sexuality, influenced by their dance moves and how they're dressed for competition, rather than an authentic one. The competitive environment can be toxic for the girls' sexualities and sense of self, overemphasizing the importance of being sexy in order to be competitive with other girls, not to mention the importance of being skinny enough to look good in belly-bearing tops and tiny skirts. Now, I'm not saying that it has this impact on all girls who compete, and it's certainly something that needs to be studied, but it really appears to magnify a lot of toxic cultural ideals.

So what can be done? Sadly, I don't have a fool-proof plan. The problem is that all-star cheerleading and competitive dance isn't exactly centralized. It seems as though every competition has its own rules and judging criteria, with lots of overlap but nothing established as a universal rule. The Varsity corporation does run a large portion of it, but even then, there is no one ruling body regulating the competition circuit, so there's no one office to write to in order to get judges to crack down on vulgarity or to implement rules regarding cheer uniforms and costumes. And of course, if skimpy costumes were banned or suddenly very much frowned upon, that means gyms have to get new uniforms, which may not be a problem for the rich, expensive gyms that frequently change their uniforms anyway, but might be an issue for lower income gyms that recycle their uniforms and can't afford to buy new ones to adapt to the rule change, putting them at even more of a disadvantage in competition. Still, change can come from the top down, if successful cheer gyms and dance studios can be persuaded to lead by example and wear uniforms with more coverage, at least for the younger squads.

I think the world of cheerleading and dance can be just as good, if not better, sans the skimpy outfits and suggestive dance moves that, by most people's standards, are not appropriate for the younger age groups. After all, the focus of cheerleading and dance should be what people's bodies can do, not what they look like.

Friday, July 1, 2011

On Waiting Periods

In the wake of a judge overturning a law that would mandate a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions in South Dakota, I thought I'd write a little something about my problem with these waiting periods in general.

The waiting periods are put in place so women have some time to think over their decision before going through with the procedure. Or so these lawmakers say. I don't disagree with the idea of wanting women to think things through, it's an important decision that shouldn't be taken lightly. However, what these rich white men in Congress and state legislatures fail to realize, is that women already DO think long and hard about that decision.

It's safe to say that most sexually active women do have a game plan, or an idea of what they would do if they ever got pregnant. Many of these women discuss that plan with their partners, to make sure there's no conflict, should the situation ever arise. I know that when my period is even an hour or two later than expected, I immediately start thinking about what I would do. It's fair to assume that when a woman goes in for her abortion consult, she has already thought a great deal about her situation and she's made up her mind.

Go to Go on, I'll wait here. Notice how many of the stories mention how hard the decision was, that the women and their partners thought it over, going back and forth. They mention how scary it is go undergo the procedure, and how painful it is. That there were times when they weren't sure they were making the right decision. The sad thing is that many women who get abortions wouldn't do so if they had the means to become mothers, but they knew they couldn't in their situation.

Now, I do think women should make informed decisions as well. The problem is that when the state steps in to make sure they're informed, the information they are mandated to receive is biased, emotionally based propaganda aimed at making sure she "knows" she's about to do something "evil." Most women in the country are misinformed about the procedure, but not in the way the anti-choice movement says they are, claiming that women who get abortions don't know what they're doing. Rather, too many people think all abortions are the horrible, gory procedure associated with late term, emergency abortions; or that what's being aborted is a small infant that can think and feel pain (and talk, sing, and narrate, according to one propaganda video); or that abortion will cause breast cancer and infertility, or that it will lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. If anything, busting those anti-abortion myths and promoting unbiased, science-based information to all women will help women decide what to do with their pregnancies.

Some see waiting periods as a necessary roadblock, out of fear that abortion shouldn't be too easily accessible. This is also a condescending sentiment, thinking women will get abortions without thinking if there's nothing in their way. What waiting periods actually do is make women take a lot of time off work, and force many women in rural areas in middle America to stay in a hotel for 2-3 nights - so while she's losing a chunk of her paycheck, she also has to pay out the ass to put herself up in a hotel, because the nearest clinic still takes hours to reach by car.

If a woman does take getting an abortion lightly, she probably shouldn't be having kids anyway. However, most women who experience unexpected pregnancies do give their decisions a lot of thought without any government intervention. The waiting periods imposed on women in several states are unnecessary and paternalistic.

Now to get really political: it's ludicrous that Republicans claim to want less government, yet try to pass these laws that interfere with women's personal lives. I suppose "less government" only means fewer laws interfering in the lives of rich, white men, but women still need restrictions on their lives, because clearly they can't be trusted.