Monthly Archives: September 2013

(I know I’ve been posting a lot but there are just so many interesting things to talk about!)

The thing that caught my eye today was the latest Vlogbrothers video, in which John compares Benjamin Franklin and Drake (and their misleading accounts of their success stories). This idea of interdependence and the lie of the American dream is SO IMPORTANT and I hardly ever see it acknowledged. Much more common is the disdain of the nonexistent “welfare queen” or outcries against affirmative action or declarations of a post-feminist world or “I don’t see color/gender/sexuality/age/ability/class, we’re all just PEOPLE!”

Privilege is real and it’s important, and this realization is what drives much of my interest and study in intersectional feminism.

I’m halfway through the readings for this week, but I just finished “Body Image, Mass Media, and Self Concept” and I want to document my thoughts while they’re fresh.

First, the premise of the study is really refreshing. I’ll admit that I haven’t thought about the heteronormativity surrounding body image discussions, but when I think about it I’ve never really seen non-heterosexual women represented in these debates (this often applies to non-white women as well). Despite the strong premise, I’m a little wary of the study’s supposed results. The sample size was very small (<30 women for all groups combined), and throughout the report the three groups were broken up in a way that suggested that each group had a unified front. While body image and sexuality are probably connected, the study drew very harsh boundaries between how the three groups perceived themselves, and to me this was overly simplistic. The authors also edited the conversations and arranged quotes/topics as they saw fit, and this probably resulted in some manipulation (intentional or not) of what the women actually said. These topics are complex and ambiguous, and I’d be shocked if it was as simple as heterosexual women fragmenting themselves and lesbian women visualizing a more unified body. (Again, this goes back to the small sample size.) I also wondered about the racial makeup of the three groups, since only two WoC were quoted and they were both lesbians. I understand that the purpose of the study was to explore body image vs. sexuality, but sexuality does not exist in a vacuum and always interacts with a person’s other identities (class, race, ability, gender, etc.). This was demonstrated in the African-American woman’s frustration with the “collagen lips” trend, as she viewed it as a subtle form of racism and cultural appropriation towards Black women with naturally full lips. If the researchers gathered another group of heterosexual, lesbian, and bisexual women, they might discover completely different perceptions across the groups. 

I don’t mean to say that the study was useless or boring, but I’m just taking it with a grain of salt.

(The other readings are great so far too! These topics are a bit difficult for me on a personal level, but I’m learning a lot and am looking forward to this week’s class.) 

This little post is inspired by the amazing blog US History Minus White Guys, a Tumblr devoted to honoring the women and POC often ignored in mainstream history textbooks. Almost all of it is completely new information to me, and it has made me analyze my own US history education and how my learning was shaped by dead white men.

I have always loved American history; until my junior year of high school I actually wanted to major in it. My biggest complaint with my history curriculums was always that they were too focused on war. Yes, war is important, but memorizing specific Civil War battles was exhausting and seemed/seems pretty irrelevant. I was always more invested in domestic and behind-the-scenes history. There was a period where the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were the only ones I read; I wanted to know what it was like to actually live in the past, not just the details of Guadalcanal. While war is important and influential, I don’t think it captures what history is “supposed to be about.” History is, in a very bald sense, studying the past to try to understand our own present and future. Yeah, that applies to armor design, but I’ve always (at least subconsciously) understood that social norms and politics and actual citizens give us much stronger insight into our cultures.

And war is fundamentally a masculine arena – power and honor and violence and strength. That always alienated me. In this war-centric model, the women and children are rape/genocide statistics, or else prizes of victory (in biblical times and now, at least to an extent). I always looked for myself in history, and I only saw that in domestic asides about how pioneer women gathered buffalo chips for a fire or in a figure of a teenage girl’s cross-stitch pattern. That’s why books like Wilder’s and the Dear America series were so important to me – they were entire plots centered around a fully functional girl with a dynamic personality, real problems, and agency within her narrative.

I always worried that I was too interested in the girly side of history, but I totally missed the point! Home life IS the girly side of history, because it’s traditionally the only place where you see anything female! And this leads to my current interests, which center specifically around women and gender and sexuality (and race, class, disability, and all other intersecting, disenfranchised identities). I need to see ME (and I use the first person loosely here) represented in historical contexts, because I know I’m there. I’m there a lot, and I’m continually surprised by how many non-white guys are a part of this country’s history. I wish I had known about them when I was 12.

(I think I’ve done a poor job of articulating my thoughts. It makes sense in my head.)

I know I said Sherlock, but last night in my advising seminar (I’m an associate advisor) we watched The Race for the Double Helix, a 1987 made-for-TV movie about the discovery of DNA’s structure. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Rosalind Franklin was well represented, and I’d like to talk about that.

For those unfamiliar, Franklin is a prime example of the forgotten women of science. She was an expert in x-ray crystallography and used the technique to try to determine the structure of DNA (she took the first actual picture of the double helix). At the same time, scientists like Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, Frances Crick, and Linus Pauling were also hot on the chase, and they generally used much more haphazard approaches. In the end, Watson and Crick were the first to build the correct model, but they got their key piece of information from Franklin’s work without her knowledge or permission. She died several years later, could not share their Nobel Prize (no prizes are awarded posthumously), and was largely forgotten.

In The Race for the Double Helix, Franklin was a major character, which I was pleasantly surprised to see. I’ve grown so accustomed to not seeing her represented that I assumed they would focus solely on the Watson/Crick work. The movie also did a good job of portraying the challenges of being a woman in science in the 1950s – the breakroom was men-only, her lab was in the basement, her coworkers called her infantilizing nicknames when she wasn’t present, and they openly discussed her relationship status and her physical attractiveness. The narrative almost always cast these slights in a negative light, which was refreshing to see in a landscape of romanticized rape scenes and normalized violence. Perhaps most importantly, the film portrayed Franklin as a multi-dimensional character – vivacious, guarded, angry, vulnerable, proud, and brave. No man came in to rescue her (she never married), her emotions did not make her weak, and her talent and hard work were considerable. She wasn’t glamorous, either! Her hair, clothes and makeup were plain and appropriate for lab work, and she was never objectified by the camera (i.e. gratuitous boob shots). This is often a problem in films with “strong female characters” so I was pleased that it wasn’t an issue here.

Also interesting was the portrayal of James Watson’s character, who is apparently a certified asshole in real life. While this was not overt in the movie, there were subtle examples of his unsavory nature throughout the narrative, especially with respect to how he treated the various women in the film. The way that these shots were framed suggest that these examples were deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, and all the scenarios are implied to be problematic. He is rather belittling to his adult sister, and takes on the role of wise guardian even though they are similar ages (and she may be older). He is often dismissive of Franklin and does not understand why she yells at him when he is being disrespectful. Perhaps most striking is his misguided quest for love – obsessed with the idea of a young foreign girlfriend, he visits boardinghouses, tries to learn French, and oogles random foreign women on the street. Aside from this disrespectful attitude towards the women, Watson is also guilty of exoticizing them and wanting to be with them  because of their cultural background, not because he sees them as equal romantic partners. He treats them as interchangeable objects – he doesn’t care which French girl he gets as long as he gets one. The viewer’s discomfort is (or at least mine was) amplified by the actor’s protruding eyes and the numerous close-up shots of his leering face.

The movie was not perfect – not from a feminist or movie critic’s perspective – but it was one of the most refreshing takes I’ve seen on the DNA discovery story and I appreciate my advisor showing it to his advisees every year. Franklin was honored with a Google Doodle earlier this year and I think that her name is slowly becoming rediscovered. As a female scientist-in-training, I find her story is especially poignant and I’m glad that there seems to be a happy ending, even if it is under-recognized and very belated.

Rachel, MIT sophomore, Course 7 (biology), dancer. I’m sure more will come out later.

For my first post I don’t really want to talk about Miley Cyrus anymore, as I have nothing to add, but I do want to share this really cool gender-flipped version of “Blurred Lines.” While the “Defined Lines” parody is based on the song but with different lyrics/shots, this gender-flipped version is an exact replica of the original, except for that the women are singing and the men are prancing around in their underwear. It’s strange to see men performing the actions we generally ascribe to “sexy women”, and (for me) it’s an even better critique of the messed up gender dynamics in the song and video.

On a more logistical note: final project idea already? Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movements, online presence both against and for (don’t know as much about the latter), elder daughters leaving, their current religious beliefs, blog networks for religious/personal support, combining old ideas and new media to create a unique community, etc.


That’s all for now, I think. Next post – my (gender related) thoughts about Sherlock? (WATCH OUT FOR THAT ONE WOW I JUST HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS OKAY)