Wednesday, October 30, 2013

TecnaMonsterFairyTaleHigh and the Future of the Female Body

In chapter 3 of Cyborg Selves I offer a detailed analysis of the way gender and human sexuality is envisioned in two distinct posthuman discourses. One, of course, is the feminist cyborg discourse begun by Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto," and the other is the analysis of gender and human sexuality offered by James Hughes and George Dvorsky in their Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies white paper entitled, "Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary."

I won't recap everything here, but suffice to say, I find these two discourses on gender and sexuality to be in opposition to each other in important ways, and the contrasts between the two ultimately rest on their divergent views of the human body, and in this instance, the female body particularly. [If you want to know more, well hey, take that $100 you've got lying around just waiting to be spent and click the link on the sidebar and get yourself a copy of the book! :)]

One of the assumptions in Hughes and Dvorsky's analysis of transhumanism and gender is that technological interventions on the human body are the ultimate means of addressing the social injustices  surrounding gender. They anticipate a future where, by means of various technologies, people will be able to consciously select certain "gendered" traits, according to personal preference, thus dismantling the "gender binary" that we have (presumably) inherited from our unaltered biology. The vision is one of liberation from that restrictive binary by altering our bodies at will.

There are a lot of things here to take issue with, from my point of view, but again--read the book.

What I want to focus on here is a new wrinkle of worry about this approach to gender and biotechnology and the posthuman future, prompted by my latest brush with the rampant sexualization and body distortion and stereotyping and reduction and limitation in children's media and the toy industry.

This past week Clare asked me to please rethink my ban on Winx Club. The girls at her school play "Winx" at recess, and while she joins in, she always feels a bit lost because she doesn't watch the show and has to figure out who is who and what is happening. I get that. And she was super thoughtful about asking me to rethink, and suggested I watch an episode. And promised that if I did let her watch it she would ignore all the inappropriate stuff (oh how I wish it worked that way). Of course it also turns out that she had been illicitly bingewatching on the iPad after Netflix put temptation right in front of her face. Sigh. #parentfail.

So, I watched an episode. And it basically made my brain explode and dribble out my ears. It was beyond the horrible I had braced myself for.

Then I saw the newest toy to come down the corporate pike for my daughter: Fairy Tale High.

Great! They're like Bratz, only not Bratz because they're, like, fairy-tale-ish. They're like Monster High, only not, 'cuz they're fairy-tale-ish. They're like Winx and _____ and _____ and ______ only not, 'cuz they're fairy tale princesses in their secret life instead of fairies and _____ and ______. Wow! That's what we call OPTIONS!

Pigtail Pals member Bailey Shoemaker Richards says it:

I mean, just look at them. You literally cannot tell these things apart.

What does the above picture have to do with transhumanist aspirations to postgenderism, I bet you're wondering.

That's great, because I'm about to tell you.

First, there's the basic question that Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals puts to us, which is, what are our girls (and boys!) learning from these distorted representations of the female body, and limited, frivolous representations of girlhood?

Yes, that's rhetorical. We know what they're learning, and it is false, and it is harmful.

My question is, what happens when these internalized false and harmful notions of what girls and women's bodies are supposed to look like collide with the ever-more-inventive technologies we use on those bodies?

Will we get the transhumanist utopian vision of technologically mediated gender equity, and human bodies that, again via technological mediation, defy the presumed biological gender binary?

Or will we get women who seek to sculpt their bodies into the distorted representations we've been handing them as the ideal and norm ever since they were born, and men who expect that?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

the smoke alarm epiphany

I was sitting in the office at home, diligently struggling along on my dissertation, when I started hearing it. A high pitched, annoying, repetitive beep that echoed along the hallway and was eerily hard to pinpoint. And it kept happening. Again. And again. And again.

Every time it happened, I was shaken out of my compositional reverie, lost focus, and had to recover my train of thought before plunging back into my text.

I told Brent about it that night and he said, yeah, the smoke alarm probably needs a battery change.

The next day: beepbeepbeep. Beepbeepbeep. Beepbeepbeep.

I was hacked. I was mad. I was righteously indignant. I yelled into the otherwise quiet empty house: why didn't he FIX this? doesn't he KNOW I'm trying to work here? Didn't I TELL him I couldn't concentrate with this godforsaken noise? WHY didn't he take care of this for me?!

Then I realized.

I can change a battery.

So I did.

Monday, October 28, 2013

dear netflix.


Unless you make it possible for me, as a concerned and responsible parent, to block certain suggested viewing options daughters' personal viewing profiles, I will be discontinuing the use of your service.

I was under the false impression that setting up profiles would take care of the issue of my daughters potentially encountering inappropriate viewing material.

But here is a screenshot of the current suggested items for my little girl.

My daughter loves Daniel Tiger. And Finn the Human Boy and Jake the Magic Dog. And George the monkey. And squeaky voiced Elmo. And the Powah-gulls. And Justin and Squidgy. And Mona the Vampire. And that's great, because she's 2.

But she does not need tiny-waisted sexy Bratz fairies with anorexic limbs and boyfriends in her life. Or Barbie. Frankly, none of us do. So please, dear powers-that-be, stop suggesting to her that she ought to be watching them instead of Daniel Tiger.

mugga mugga,

Clare and Zadie's mom

***update: I've had two informative chats with the online help at, and here's the result. You can exercise some measure of control over this, but it's not intuitive. When you set up profiles there's a box to check or uncheck that says "kids under 12." So, when Brent set up the profiles, he clicked that Clare and Z's were kid profiles by clicking that box. Because that seems easy-peasy and all. However, Netflix actually has four different age-related ratings, Little Kids, Older Kids, Teens, and Adults. You can find that when you go to your account settings, but it doesn't give age ranges and also, if you've already clicked the box on the individual profiles for "kid under 12," it doesn't let you change the parental control setting to "little kid." You have to go unclick the box on the profile, and then it will give you the option to set the profile to "little kid."

That's the good news.

The bad news is, despite having rated 100+ kids movies and clicked on "not interested" for Barbie, Winx Club, etc., they remain in full view on both my daughters' profiles in the top category of suggestions, "popular on Netflix." I can't get them to go away. So, Winx Club remains, literally, the first thing my daughter will see on her home page. Presumably it will eventually disappear because she won't be watching it, and it will get replaced with suggestions only from the "little kid" category, but I don't know when that will happen.

The bigger problem I see in all this is, as a parent, I have no surefire way to block content, and what I do have is non-intuitive and labor-intensive. At 7 Clare is aging out of little kid territory pretty soon. Parental control is not content-based, at least not directly, but age-category based, and someone other than me is making decisions about what content is appropriate for what age--and in general, what content is appropriate, period. Or worse, and more accurately, they're not making any judgments about appropriate content, because that's not really their job--which means that at, as soon as I click "older kids" for Clare, we're in Winx Club territory no matter what. So, fine, that's not actually their job--it's mine, because I'm the parent. But I need a better way to do my job. I can't blame Netflix for the larger issues of structural sexism and the early childhood sexualization of girls that is rampant in media--but given that this is a huge problem, I think a big fat red VETO button for any cartoon that will teach my daughter false and harmful things about her gender and sexuality is necessary.


"Mom, is it bad to be a loudmouth?"


Thursday, October 17, 2013

spooky crappy unhappy meals.

I know this is an old, and very familiar complaint. There's all sorts of things wrong with Happy Meals and fast food and the use of free plastic gimmicks to further entice our young ones into addiction, as if french fries (or, as Z calls them, "Fry-days!") weren't by themselves enough.

And so, first, yeah, a big ol' mea culpa, mea maxima culpa for giving up and feeding my precious ones crap because I'm sick and on my own while my spouse is out late at a Vestry meeting. Tonight we'll eat Vegetable Korma, I promise.

But honestly. It gets me every single time. The Question: "boy or girl?"

This time, the plastic gimmicks were Halloween buckets--not a bad idea. The choices were between Star Wars themed Angry Birds buckets and, yep you guessed it, Monster High.

I never answer the question "boy or girl" with either "boy" or "girl." I tell them which toy I prefer. This unfortunately did not translate well last night. The Question came back: "but, boy or girl?"

Finally I said, exasperated, "I have two girls who would prefer the Star Wars Angry Birds toys."

I mean, is there something unclear about saying "give us this one?" Is there some sort of McDonalds policy in place to never deviate from parceling out your plastic gimmicks according to rigid gender stereotypes? Is this why your Question is "boy or girl" and not "which toy would you like?"

And let's just not even get into the issues of handing my 2- and 7-year-olds Monster High. Really? I mean, really?

Yes, I know, none of this is at all surprising. And that, friends, is a measure of the dimension of this problem.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

anthropomorphizing indeed.

Through the magic of the Internet I came across this fantastic piece today. The part that will explode a tiny piece of your brain (one which I hope you didn't need after all) is this list:

Reel Girl commenter, Nebbie, keeps a list of male characters in animation who, in the “real” world, would be female: 
1) Barnyard movie and video game, Back and the Barnyard: male cattle with udders
2) The Madagascar movies and specials, The Penguins of Madagascar: Joey the male kangaroo with a pouch, male hornets with stings, King Julien the dominant male ring tailed lemur (Only female kangaroos have a pouch, ring tailed lemurs are matriarchal.)
3)Bee Movie: male worker bees, male bees with stings, Mooseblood the male bloodsucking mosquito (Only female bees, wasps, including hornets, and some ants have a sting because the sting is a modified oviposito)
4)Turbo: male snails, Burn the one female snail (Garden snails are hermaphrodites)
5) A Bugs Life, The Ant Bully, and Antz: male worker ants (Worker ants, bees, and wasps are all sterile females, the males are drones and they die soon after they mate with the queen– fertile female– ant, bee, or wasp.)
6) The Jungle Book: male elephant herd and leader (elephants are matriarchal)
7) Fantasia: female ostriches with male black and white plumage
8) Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos: Gonzalo the male tortoiseshell kitten (Most tortoiseshell cats are female. A male cat can only be tortoiseshell if it has Klinefelter’s Syndrome– XXY, usually sterile– has chimerism, or has mosaicism.)
9) Finding Nemo: Marlin the clownfish stays male after his wife died (Clownfish are protoandrous hermaphrodites; they are born male and the the most dominant male turns female when the dominant female is removed from the group.) 
What’s so creepy about this is how often what is “natural” is used to justify sexism. 
I knew about the Nemo thing; but the rest are new to me. I think my favorite is (1). Male cows with udders. If that were intentional, I'd love it. I mean, if we were intentionally teaching our kids the differences between biological embodiments and gender, and calling into question gender stereotypes instead upholding them by reverse-engineering the representations of other animals' bodies to fit within our rigid gender stereotypes, then this would be BRILLIANT! Alas, I doubt the intention was to represent biologically female cows who identify as male.

When Clare was about 3, we had a conversation in which I utterly failed to convince her that boys have eyelashes. I've never forgotten it. Brent has lovely eyelashes and at one point I said, "Brent, take your glasses off. Clare, go look at your daddy's eyes. See his eyelashes." She did. And it still failed to convince her. Why? You know why. Because every single boy character in every type of media she'd been inundated with her entire little life had no eyelashes, and every single girl character did. Eyelashes=girl was a constant feature of her world, and empirical evidence of Daddy's eyelashes was simply not enough to counter that constant given.

The good news is, Clare (now 7) is embroiled in a long-standing dispute with a friend at school (a boy) who claimed that girls don't have biceps. Scornfully she replied, "My mom has great big biceps! And just look at my arm! I'm just as strong as YOU! Look at that muscle!"